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.
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.
Contempt (Le Mépris) 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.