Contempt (1963): Godard Masterpiece Starring Brigitte Bardot

The Criterion Collection DVD contains commentary from the NYU film scholar Robert Stam, and a one hour conversation between Godard and Fritz Lang (who plays a major part in the film), titled “The Dinosaur and the Baby.”

You’ll also get to hear what Godard thinks of film critics (guess what?).  Among the docus are a short about Brigitte Bardot, who was at the height of her international fame, a short on Lang, and a most interesting spotlight on ace cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who shot many New Wave films.

Self-reflexive and hauntingly beautiful, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” (“Le Mepris”), a densely allusive work about the world of commercial filmmaking and the dissolution of marriage, is one of the director’s most accessible and most popular films.

It was made right after “Les Carabiniers,” a film-essay based on play and Godard’s only theatrical movie. Like all of Godard’s films, “Contempt” is a profound essay on the nature o cinema, this time around addressing the issues of the declining possibility of personal creativity and artistic autonomy in an increasingly industrial medium, which had lost its heart and soul.

But the film deviates from other works in the master’s large and impressive oeuvre in some significant ways. Unlike most of his films, the script of “Contempt” is based on a well-known novel by Alberto Moravia, and is funded by internationally famous figures, Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine (associated with the Hercules pictures).

Moreover, the film features an international cast, headed by French sex symbol Brigitte (“And God Created Woman”) Bardot and respected actor Michel Piccoli, Hollywood actor Jack Palance, who plays a Hollywood producer here, German director Fritz Lang (“Metropolis,” “M”), who here plays himself and serves as the mouthpiece for Godard, who cast himself as Lang’s assistant director.

This was the first time that Godard worked with actors who had previously established strong personas, such as Brigitte Bardot; neither Jean-Paul Belmondo (“Breathless”) nor Anna Karina (“Vivre Sa Vie”) were well-known when appearing in Godard’s early films.

Boasting precise and modulated mise-en-scene, “Contempt” is about prostitution, or degrees of selling out, and compromised ethics, experienced by all of the characters in the story. Godard also raises questions about his own integrity as an artist, offering a droll, subtle commentary on his precarious position as a hired hand. Inevitably, the elegiac tone of the film is also influenced by Godard’s own separation from wife-actress Anna Karina.

A word about the genesis of the production is in order. Initially, when Carlo Ponti approached Godard, he proposed a feature starring the American Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra. When Godard refused, Ponti came up with another cast, this time Italian, Sophia Loren (big international star and Ponti’s own wife) and Marcello Mastroianni. Godard again refused and the two settled on the Gallic actors Bardot and Piccoli.

Godard was required to include shots of nudity of Brigitte Bardot as a condition for financing his picture, though he has the last word, positions Bardot in one of the film’s most verbose and least erotic sequences. (See below).

As the opening credits roll down, the camera tracks across an open field before turning its lens toward the audience, asking us to witness and take notice. This is followed by a quotation from the noted film critic (and Godard’s mentor at Cahier du Cinema) Andre Bazin, “The cinema gives us a substitute world which fits our desires.”

And, indeed, the most touching and elegiac scenes deconstruct the nature of desire, love and trust through a poignantly tragic tale of the breakup of marriage. The first scene shows the married couple, Paul Joval (Piccoli) and his young gorgeous wife Camille (Bardot), lying in bed. He’s fully dressed, and she’s naked but draped in sheets.

Defying conventions, Godard de-eroticizes the scene by focusing on small, silly talk between the spouses (“Do you like my eyes? Do you like my shoulders?”) rather than on physical touching or love-making.

Godard considered “Il Disprezzo” (sometimes translated as “A Ghost at Noon”) Moravia’s novel, to be an essentially vulgar work full of old-fashioned sentiments and melodramatic events. His goal was to bare the novel to its basic structure, thus deprive the viewers from the customary satisfactions offered by bourgeois novels. (You can imagine what Godard would have done with Flaubert’s famous novel, “Madame Bovary”)

In the film, Fritz Lang is making an epic movie version of Homer’s “The Odyssey,” produced by a crass American producer, Jeremiah Prokosch (Palance). When first seen, Prokosch walks on a ramp elevated above the other characters, who follow him as he struts and declaims proverbs from the little “Bible” he always carries with him. Throughout the film, he shifts different levels of reality, mimicking or acting out elements of the scenario.

Prokosch hires Paul (Piccoli), an aspiring playwright with an intellectual bent but dubious record thus far, to work on rewrites of the scenario to his specifications. Though doubtful and hesitant, Paul accepts the assignment, presumably to please his beautiful and spoiled wife, Camille. The job will pay for a luxurious apartment in Rome–“Ulysses” is being shot in the famous studio Cinecitta.

Godard saw Paul, who interacts with all the other characters, as “a character from ‘Last Year in Marienbad’ who wants to play the role of a character in ‘Rio Bravo.’”  Rather consciously, Paul wears his hat at all times, just as Dean Martin did in Minnelli’s 1958 melodrama, “Some Came Running”; both Paul and Camille talk about Dean Martin. But there are also indirect allusions to Minnelli’s “Two Weeks in Another Town,” sort of a sequel to his 1953 “The Bad and the Beautiful,” a movie about filmmaking, which he had shot in Rome in 1961.

Also at the center is Francesca (Giorgia Moll), Prokosch’s assistant and translator, who interprets for all the characters by repeating whole lines of dialogue. Speaking four languages, Francesca is a symbol of their separation and isolation, and the only chance they have to establish some basic communication, if not understanding. By duplicating the lines of dialogue, Godard further de-dramatizes Moravia’s novel, draining it of its melodramatic emotional power.

It is fruitful to analyze “Contempt” as an essay about portraiture in cinema (the very notion of fictional screen characters), role-playing onscreen and off, and actors’ individualized style of performance. We cannot really dissociate the screen persona of the actors, as established in other movies, from the specific roles they play in “Contempt.” In the first shot, we recognize Brigitte Bardot the sex symbol, not the character she is ostensibly playing. Godard is fully aware that Bardot and her sensual body are the main commodity of the narrative and production–without her there would be no backing for his movie.

In the last reel, Camille betrays Paul by succumbing to Prokosch’s seductive gestures. Taking a drive in his red sports car, Prokosch and Camille are abruptly killed in a car accident (which takes place off screen).

In the very last scene, Godard returns to the relative tranquility and security of filmmaking. Lang and his assistant Godard call action, shooting Ulysses as he surveys the sea. It’s impossible to watch the final image of the blue water, blue sky, and bright sun without thinking of Fellini and Rossellini.