2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon
Abstract and self-reflexive with little plot, Contempt (Le mépris 1963) is still one of director Jean Luc Godard’s most accessible films. In Cinemascope and Technicolor, Contempt is a film about filmmaking that looks very different from Breathless (À bout de soufflé 1960), Godard’s New Wave masterpiece. For Breathless, he and cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot on the streets of Paris, infusing the film with an immediacy and realism. Hand-held camerawork and jump cuts abound. Contempt appears staid by comparison. However, Godard effectively subverts Hollywood studio techniques throughout.
At the time, Brigitte Bardot was a star in France with growing international fame and the main reason the film was even made. As Robert Stam says on the Criterion commentary track, producers Carlo Ponti were anxious to sign Bardot for the picture. Once they did, they made every effort to exploit her “sex kitten” image. What Ann Margret was in the U.S., Bardot was in France. In the opening scene, Camille (Bardot) and Paul (Michel Piccoli) lie still on a bed. Paul wears a shirt and is under the covers. The nude Camille, backside toward the camera, seeks reassurance on her attractiveness. She begins dissecting her body parts, starting with her feet. Paul mentions having to meet an American. The couple seems morose and unsatiated, their repressed emotions given voice in the orchestral score by veteran New Wave composer Georges Delerue.
In Rome, Paul is a screenwriter/novelist negotiating to doctor a script based on Homer’s Odyssey. At a screening room in the famed Cinecittà Studio, Paul watches rushes with the director, played by Fritz Lang. Much of the fun of Contempt comes from observing the unlikely international cast work together. Besides Bardot, veteran French actor Piccoli and Lang, Jack Palance plays producer Jeremiah “Jerry” Prokosch. Jerry embodies everything that’s wrong with Hollywood, at least by European standards. He’s uncultured, aggressive and treats Francesca (Georgia Moll) his assistant/translator, like a slave using her back for a table when he needs something to write on.
Jerry hates what he sees on the screen and throws a fit, hurling a film can like a discus, nearly injuring Francesca. Director Lang takes it in stride though he later refers to his producer as a dictator.
The Austrian Lang was at the end of a career that begin in about 1916. In Contempt, the character Lang plays is a mellowed version of the director, spouting philosophical aphorisms instead of commands. While Paul the cinephile compliments Lang on his early work, Jerry’s concern is what he can sell today. He paraphrases Joseph Goebbels: “When I hear culture, I reach for my checkbook.” The Odyssey rushes feature dialogue-less sequences as costumed actors emote and Greek statues seem to float in space. Filmed on the Isle of Capri, it all looks lovely but pretentious. While Jerry looks foolish at times, he knows his audience and guesses that the mythological references will be over their heads. What’s worse, it’s not entertaining.
I wonder what Jerry would make of the middle section of Godard’s film. Paul and Camille return to their flat. The production design and use of color to enhance the story is effective. Long takes and tracking between characters convey dialogue scenes. That said, entertainment value is not paramount and some viewers will tune out.
Robert Stam guesses that Camille’s black wig, which Paul doesn’t like, is a backhanded reference to Cleopatra (1963), the Elizabeth Taylor epic. It’s also a use of doubling with Bardot playing her own brunette twin. Francesca is also a double, an educated version of the typist Camille. When they pass each other wearing identical robes late in the film, this becomes clear. Paul’s overtures to Francesca go nowhere which also mirrors Camille’s growing detachment from Paul.
The film concludes with cast and crew on location. Their marriage unravelling, Paul and Camille travel to Capri to watch filming. The flirtation between Jerry and Camille continues. Paul helped to instigate the relationship but now has regrets. There’s a final tragedy and in the end, no one is getting what they want.
Thanks to Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film for hosting the 2016 Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Click on image for a complete list of participants.