Contempt (Le Mepris) (1963): Godard’s Poignant, Elegant Masterpiece, Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang, Jack Palance

Tribute to Jean-Luc Godard, who died Sep 13, age 91.

My Favorite Godard movie: Contempt (1963)

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

One of the director’s most accessible and most popular films, sc decades later, Contempt still is thematically poignant and visually elegant movie.

Contempt
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French theatrical release poster

 

Contempt was made right after Les Carabiniers, a film-essay based on a play and Godard’s most theatrical movie.

Like all of Godard’s films, Contempt is a profound essay on the nature of cinema, this time around addressing the issues of the declining possibility of personal creativity and artistic autonomy in an increasingly industrial medium that might have lost both its heart and soul.

Our Grade: A (***** out of *****)

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.  Moreover, it is funded by internationally famous figures, Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine (associated with the Hercules pictures).

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The film features an international cast, headed by French sex symbol Brigitte (“And God Created Woman”) Bardot and the respected actor Michel Piccoli, American star Jack Palance, and renowned German director Fritz Lang (“Metropolis,” “M”).

While Palance plays a Hollywood producer, Lang plays himself while also servings as the mouthpiece for Godard, who cast himself in this feature 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 they had appeared in Godard’s early films.

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Boasting a highly precise and modulated mise-en-scene, “Contempt” is about prostitution, or the varying degrees of selling out, and inevitably 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 his wife-actress and muse Anna Karina, which he described in other occasions as tragic and depressing.

A word about the genesis of the production is in order. Initially, when Carlo Ponti approached Godard, he proposed a feature starring the American star Kim Novak (Picnic, Vertigo) and singer-star Frank Sinatra. When Godard refused, Ponti came up with another cast, this time Italian Sophia Loren (big international star and Ponti’s wife) and her friend and frequent co-star Marcello Mastroianni.

When Godard continued to refuse stubbornly Ponti’s casting ideas, the two men settled on a Gallic cast, actors Bardot and Piccoli.

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As a condition for financing his picture, Godard was required to include shots of nudity of Brigitte Bardot, which he did.  But this being a quintessentially Godardian work, he decided to position Bardot in one of the film’s most talkative 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 the magazine “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 one bourgeois 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.

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Defying narrative conventions and audience expectations, 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 lovemaking.

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 most 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. They follow him as he struts round, declaiming proverbs from a little “Bible” he always carries with him. Throughout the film, he shifts among different levels of reality, mimicking or acting out various 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 based on his specifications. Though doubtful and hesitant, Paul accepts the assignment, presumably to please his spoiled wife Camille. After all, the job will pay for their luxurious apartment in Rome–“Ulysses” is being shot in the famous Italian studio Cinecitta.

Godard had said that he perceived Paul, who interacts with all the other figures, as “a character from Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad, who wants to play the role of a character in Howard Hawks-John Wayne western Rio Bravo.”

 

Rather consciously, Paul wears his hat at all times, just as Dean Martin did in Minnelli’s 1958 melodrama, Some Came Running–Paul and Camille also talk about Dean Martin.

Photo: Some Came Running (1958)

But there are also indirect allusions to Minnelli’s 1961 melodrama, Two Weeks in Another Town, which was sort of a sequel to his superior 952 inside-Hollywood drama, The Bad and the Beautiful.

Caught in the midst of all the intrigues is Francesca (Giorgia Moll), Prokosch’s assistant and translator, who serves as interpreter for all the characters by repeating whole lines of dialogue. Speaking four languages, Francesca is a symbol of the other figures’ separation and isolation, and she may also represent the only chance they have to establish some communication, if not understanding. By duplicating whole 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, 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 then abruptly killed in a car accident (which takes place off screen).

In the very last scene, Godard returns to the relative security of the filmmaking world. Lang and his assistant Godard call the magical word, “Action! before proceeding to shoot 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 Italian maestro Fellini, who

While based on Moravia’s story of estrangement between a husband and his wife, Godard’s version contains deliberate parallels with his own life. Paul, Camille, and Prokosch correspond to Ulysses, Penelope, and Poseidon, respectively, but they also reflect the troubled relationships between Godard, his then wife and muse Anna Karina (his choice of female lead), and Joseph E. Levine, the film’s distributor.  In one scene, Bardot dons a black wig which makes her look like Karina.  Michel Piccoli bears some resemblance to Brigitte Bardot’s ex-husband, the filmmaker Roger Vadim, who made her a sex icon in And God Created a Woman.”

Like every Godard’s film, “Contempt makes allusions to literature, drama and history.  There are references to Dante, particularly Canto XXVI of Inferno, Ulysses’ last fatal voyage beyond the Pillars of Hercules to the other side of the world, and Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem, “Dichterberuf” (“The Poet’s Vocation”).

The movie was shot in Italy, at the Cinecittà studios in Rome and the Casa Malaparte on the gorgeous island of Capri.  As noted, Piccoli and Bardot wander through their apartment, alternately arguing and reconciling in an extended series of tracking shots, shot with natural light and lasting in near real-time. The brilliant cinematography is executed b, Raoul Coutard, who shot some of the seminal films of the Nouvelle Vague, including Godard’s first film, Breathless, and the 1967 Weekend.

In the last scene, Fritz Lang is heard saying, “You always try to finish what you start.”  A long shot of the blue sea follows, and a crew member says, “Silencio.”  The usual coda of every film, “The End” (Finis), is printed on screen in blue letters.

Made on a budget of $1 million, Contempt was one of Godard’s most popular films. In France alone, it boasted 1,619,020 admissions.

Film’s title:

Camille feels contempt for her husband whom she accuses of trying to pimp her out to Prokosch, and of selling out his essential ideals and artistic principles for money.

Intertextuality:

Posters on the walls in the couple’s apartment are those of Howard Hawks’ cult safari movie, Hatari! starring John Wayne; Rossellimi’s Voyage to Italy (also about the dissolution of a marriage), starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders; and of the Italian film Alibi and Ultima.

Photo: See Hatari! poster in the background

Piccoli’s Paul always wears a hat, even in the bathtub, a tribute to Minnelli’s Some Came Running, in which Dean Martin is always seen wearing a hat, except for the last scene, when he attends the funeral of the Shirley MacLaine’s character.

Some lines to remember:

Fritz Lang: “CinemaScope is fine for shooting snakes and coffins.”

Palance: “I like Gods. I know exactly how they feel.”

Cast

Brigitte Bardot as Camille Javal
Michel Piccoli as Paul Javal
Jack Palance as Jeremy Prokosch
Giorgia Moll as Francesca Vanini
Fritz Lang as Himself
Raoul Coutard as the cameraman
Jean-Luc Godard as Lang’s Assistant Director

Credits:

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Produced by Georges de Beauregard and Carlo Ponti; Joseph E. Levine (uncredited)

Screenplay by Godard, based on the novel, “Il disprezzo,” by Alberto Moravia
Music: Georges Delerue

Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Edited by Agnès Guillemot; Lila Lakshmanan (uncreduted)aa

Production companies: Rome Paris Films, Les Films Concordia, Compagnia Cinematografica Champion

Distributed by Marceau-Cocinor (France), Interfilm (Italy), Embassy Pictures (international)

Release date: December 20, 1963

Running time: 101 minutes