(Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1963)
A Tragedy in Three Parts
Shot using CinemaScope, in Technicolor, starring a French A-lister, and a cameo by a world-renowned German director – hardly sounds like it describes the career of Jean-Luc Godard’s revered ‘60s output, right? The man made a name for himself by tearing down the walls of the box studios and financiers had placed filmmakers in. He taught us how to pay homage while forging new stylistic terrain (Breathless), humorously deconstruct an overstuffed genre (A Woman Is a Woman), and turn an exercise in minimalistic verisimilitude into a powerful character study (Vivre sa vie). He was an innovator in a class of his own. And yet, his hotly anticipated foray into commercialized filmmaking Contempt is easily the apex of his fruitful decade and possibly the greatest in his entire expansive career.
It’s unclear why Godard even wanted to risk the inevitable clash with dissatisfied producers and the subsequent compromise he as a self-proclaimed auteur would likely have to make, but he dove in headfirst regardless. Perhaps he knew this would be his one big chance at big studio fare with the most envied technology Hollywood could provide or maybe it was another exercise in genre appropriating that marked his early career and this time a film about film was the trope du jour. Whatever the reason for the decision, it paid off immeasurably. For at its core Contempt is Godard’s Greek tragedy, and the grand scope with which he captured his film only serves to underscore the heightened pathos of that great, ancient genre.
Contempt may be a film about film – as it documents the process of producer meddling in the character of American Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), a stunted visionary director playing himself (Fritz Lang), and a reluctant screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) called in for rewrites – but the troubled production of the movie within this movie (fittingly an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey) is not Godard’s tragedy. No, at the film’s center is the story of a doomed marriage. And, a layer even deeper than that reveals that this disintegrating relationship mirrors the conflict Paul faces between art (Lang’s initial cut of The Odyssey) and commercialization (Prokosch’s demands for crowd-pleasing rewrites) as Paul’s wife Camille (a scene-stealing Brigitte Bardot) distances herself from him as he leans toward giving in to Prokosch’s demands. It’s a brilliantly meta-narrative that possibly finds Godard at his most self-reflexive; his only big-budget film to date is also concerned with the very notion of compromising artistic expression.
Remarkably, it seems Godard makes very few (if any) reductive concessions. Contempt, while markedly more adherent to the narrative and stylistic constructs Godard built his career on breaking, is still a wholly accomplished work. It’s a much fuller film than the intentionally limited debut that rocketed him into stardom, but in this writer’s opinion it’s better for it. Ironically, more money and resources at his disposal serve as a greater constraint to narrow the focus of his direction from the free-for-all nature of his previous work. It may be less technically innovative than either Breathless or Vivre sa vie before it, but Contempt achieves something greater than both those earlier films. It’s certainly ambitious as a film detailing the very process of filming a big studio production, an intimate drama of a failing marriage, and a medium for Godard to explore his own identity as an artist, but it lands on all three fronts.
Godard’s own prowess at the art of filmmaking takes care of the first point, the film’s extended second act revolving around escalating conflict between Paul and Camille enclosed in the suffocating space of their unfinished flat provides the adequate screen time for the second (and the film’s very best sequences), and the film entire in addition to the director’s own marital troubles with the notably absent Anna Karina lend credence to the notion of an artist in turmoil. Godard strictly follows the pattern of Greek tragedy to its inevitable, calamitous finale. Paul ultimately turns down Prokosch’s lucrative offer, but it’s too late. He may preserve his artistic integrity, but his marriage is finished. And, Camille, unintentionally pushed away by her confused husband, leaves him for the slimy Prokosch, but it also spells her demise.
As mentioned, the film’s best scenes are between Paul and Camille in their home. They roam the interior space casually – sipping soda, taking baths, flipping through a book of art – but their conversation fueled by a crucial misunderstanding that takes place in the film’s first act devolves into senseless bickering as contempt for one another grows. Some have read misogyny in the film’s characterizations here citing Godard’s sympathy for the conflicted artist (perhaps even a stand-in for Godard himself) ultimately betrayed by his wife but only mere indifference toward Camille’s position. I can see this argument, especially in light of Paul’s sudden burst of aggression sans consequence and Camille’s late-film switcheroo that finds her in the arms of the man who initially disgusted her. It certainly doesn’t help that Bardot’s played here for her sex appeal (though she acquits herself admirably outshining nearly everyone else in performance alone). But, personally, I find Godard’s position rather balanced. Camille is no mere shell, and if she comes across as a submissive housewife at times, it only validates her increasing intolerance and ultimate decision to leave Paul. Neither party is innocent in this tragedy, and a brief sequence of voiceover narration providing a window into both spouse’s thoughts suggests the dissolution of their marriage tragically hinges on a gross misunderstanding despite their enduring love for one another.
I have heard Contempt compared to Fellini’s 8 ½ released the same year, and the comparison is an apt one. Both are explicitly concerned with filmmaking and inner turmoil artists at the helm face when up against studio or audience pressure. Both are intensely self-reflexive. And, both deal with men and trouble with the women in their lives. But while Fellini’s opus is also his most daringly complex, a work of unparalleled cinematic surrealism, Godard’s (arguably) greatest film is the least like his other groundbreaking work and unexpectedly compliant with cinema’s vast history that it willingly bows to. He most often receives his well-deserved praise for breaking all the rules with Breathless, but I find that when he decides to follow them he makes far more compelling and enduring cinema.