May 14, 2014

Godard Marathon: Contempt (1963)

Brigitte Bardot stars in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt.

We’ve seen plenty of films that depict the excitement of making a movie. It’s glitzy and glamorous! That’s the sales pitch, at least. The common theme from people who’ve worked on films (especially with small budgets) is that they’re usually extremely boring. People stand around and wait for a set-up that takes hours and hope to capture something magical within a brief shot. This sense of melancholy about the filmmaking process permeates Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, which depicts an attempt to adapt Ulysses for the big screen. That production sets the backdrop for the dissolution of a marriage between two people that don’t care enough to even really communicate. Small slights become big problems, and having these arguments within the movie setting just makes them even drearier. He’s a writer who’s conflicted about even working in the industry, and she thinks he lacks guts and conviction. This isn’t going to end well for anyone; the film’s title says it all.

Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Contempt.

The story begins with a naked Camille (Brigitte Bardot) lying on the bed and asking her husband Paul (Michel Piccoli) about her physical features. It’s an intimate conversation that makes us feel like vultures for intruding. The couple seems happy, but there are hints from their conversation that their life is not so satisfying. Camille is stunning yet has major insecurities, and his comments don’t seem entirely convincing. These clues are a lot more evident when looking back on the scene after seeing where they go next. It’s interesting to note the way that Godard shoots Bardot as an object more than an individual. She was a gigantic star at the time in France, so the nude scenes would be an exciting draw for audiences not as interested in cinema. The film’s co-producers pushed for shots like this one, and Godard uses it to reveal more about Camille while displaying Bardot for all to see.

The centerpiece is a long argument between Camille and Paul that starts out small and leads to the end of their marriage. It lasts for more than 30 minutes and traps us inside the apartment with the unhappy couple. He doesn’t understand why she’s upset, yet there’s a distance that tells us this isn’t their first rodeo. She refuses to explain the problem and believes he doesn’t care about her, which is partially true. Both are so passive aggressive and have been worn down by the entire situation. How did this happen? They’re young and have the whole world ahead of them, yet Camille and Paul are so lifeless. She tries on a black wig and looks striking, but he could care less and just lounges in the bathtub. Even when they’re just a few feet apart, the distance between them is miles long. It’s an uncomfortable scene that is painful to watch, yet I can recognize the originality. Godard presents the conflicts without cutting away and won’t let the audience catch a breath.

A remarkable shot from the island of Capri in Godard's Contempt.

Contempt (Le M├ępris) is adapted from the 1954 Italian novel Il disprezzo (A Ghost at Noon) and was shot in Rome and at Capri. The latter setting leads to remarkable shots that transcend the plot. It’s that grand feeling that sticks with you long after the credits. One image of Paul standing on the roof of a villa while his wife kisses American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) in the window below is incredible. Who can resist shots of Bardot lying in the sun within such a gorgeous setting? This beauty masks the nastiness within the relationship, however. Camille has checked out completely, and his attempts to woo her back are half-hearted. An early scene where he gets friendly with Francesca (Giorgia Moll) signifies that Paul may not be innocent. When he lets Camille take a ride with Prokosch, what are his intentions? It’s that mystery that keeps us at a distance from the arguments, which seem more difficult because we have limited information.

Another facet is the backstage look at filmmaking through this messy production. Prokosch gets so angry after watching dailies that he throws the reels down in a mad rage. He hires Fritz Lang (playing himself) to bring prominence to the project but treats him like an underling. The footage we observe from this movie includes grand statues and beautiful women, but the narrative makes little sense. There are parallels between the film they’re trying to shoot and the difficulties between the couple. There is plenty to uncover within the mix, but I felt cold to most of it. It’s the first time that Godard hasn’t wowed me with his inventive direction. There’s beauty and conflict on display, yet it feels more like an exercise than a riveting film. It’s still an interesting work that deserves attention, but the experience left me hollow towards the characters and the ambitious director.

19 comments:

  1. This is one of several films of Godard from his New Wave period that I hope to see as he is one of those giants I hope to conquer one of these days for a future Auteurs profile. Fortunately, I do have this film on my DVR queue as I will watch it later in the summer.

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    1. I'll be interested to check out your take. I've seen five Godard films now, and all are from his early career.

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  2. I came really close to adding this to my Blind Spot list this year, especially since I have only seen a couple of Godard's films. Despite the praise this film seems to get, it sounds like it might be one of those polarizing experiences.

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    1. I think it's worth seeing, but it's my least favorite Godard so far, so others might be better picks.

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  3. I agree that while there's some magnificent craft behind the film, it comes across as alienating and cold. I know a lot of people think of Godard as a deep intellectual filmmaker, but I usually feel drawn to his characters. Here, everyone feels distant and unknowable. It's a shame because I love the idea of this film and there are some astounding shots throughout the film.

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    1. It sounds like we're on the same page. I know there are countless references in this film and it's gorgeous, but that only goes so far.

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    2. I'll "third" this to a certain extent but...if it doesn't quite have the Godardian verve I value so much in other mid-60s films, it does have several elements that have encouraged me to watch it numerous times over the years. Coutard's colors pop, Bardot (of course) sizzles, and most of all Delerue's music may well be my favorite film score of all time. So goddamn beautiful.

      (Sidenote: didn't realize this series stretched back into May. And just noticed on the sidebar what your next Godard will be. Can't wait...Masculin Feminin is my favorite of his films, and at times I've called it my favorite film ever.)

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    3. I agree that it's a stunning film in terms of the look, and the style is dazzling. It just had a nastiness to the characters that was hard to like. I normally do the marathons once a week, but things got too hectic for a few weeks. I'm glad you circled back and found this review.

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    4. The sound of this does go a long way toward mitigating the nastiness, though!:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUs4awmb3-o

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    5. Definitely! No arguments from me on the score.

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  4. I have only seen Breathless and Jules and Jim and parts of Alphaville in Godards filmography. I wont lie the fact that Badot gets nude in this does peak my interest. Great post. Look forward to reading more

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    1. Thanks Vern! I'm watching Alphaville very soon, so it will be interesting to see how that goes.

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  5. I love this film, definitely one of my favorite Godard's. I agree that it isn't a particularly "wowing" film, but, as an exercise, it does work for me. I remember watching it for the first time and going, "Hey, that's the music from Casino!" Nope, other way around there.

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    1. Alex, it's definitely an effective exercise. I'm guessing that my opinion would grow if I dug further into the references and everything behind the basic story.

      I've found that I have a similar experience as you did with the score the more I dig into older films. While watching The Killing, I thought "this feels a lot like Reservoir Dogs!" and then felt silly for thinking it.

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  6. The first time I saw Contempt I didn't like it at all (I think it was my second Godard, after Breathless). Coming back to it after having seen a bunch more of his work - all from the '60s - helped a lot. It's still pretty distancing, but to me it's a real signpost in Godard's career as a modern/postmodern filmmaker, especially in the way it relates to the classical era that Paul's film is set in. It's like Godard longs for an era where heroes could be heroes, like classical Greece, but he knows it can't be anymore, and the film is in some ways playing out that angst.

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    1. It's funny that you mention not liking Contempt and then appreciating it more later. My brother calls it one of his favorite movies, and he didn't care for it at first. He said it took a third viewing before it clicked for him. Your point about Godard's wish for heroes makes me think of Alphaville, which I just watched this week. The hero is an old-school detective who's so out of place in that world. Great points!

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    2. I've had that happen with a number of Godard films. The only ones I loved right away, I think, were Band of Outsiders and A Woman is a Woman. Breathless, Contempt, Pierrot le fou, Made in USA, and Weekend all took at least two views. I've still only seen Alphaville, The Little Soldier, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and Masculine Feminin once each, and they're all in the "didn't love" category. And I haven't seen much after 1968.

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    3. I'd say that I loved A Woman is a Woman and Vivre Sa Vie right away, and I also really liked Band of Outsiders. Breathless was good, but I think my expectations were too high. Contempt and Alphaville are below those, but I have a feeling they'd grow with more viewings.

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    4. This is an interesting point, Jandy. It's one reason I think of Godard as a modernist rather than postmodernist - he seems less interested in irony for its own sake than as a way of looking, with longing but also critical thinking, at a past that can't be recaptured. It's like hyperaware nostalgia. Though he doesn't want to be at times, he's at heart a romantic.

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