Emotions run deep in Godard’s masterwork as it charts the deterioration of a couple’s marriage whilst set against the chronic uncertainties of a movie production.
Dir. Jean-Luc Godard
1963 | France/Italy | Drama | 103 mins | 2.35:1 | French, English, German & Italian
NC16 (Netflix rating) for some disturbing scenes and coarse language
Cast: Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang
Plot: Screenwriter Paul Javal’s marriage to his wife Camille disintegrates during a movie production as she spends time with the producer.
Subject Matter: Moderate – Cinema, Marriage, Incommunicability
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: The Projector – French Film Festival
Made only three years after his famous debut feature, Breathless (1960), Contempt was already Jean-Luc Godard’s sixth feature at the time. Shot in Cinemascope and breathtaking Technicolour, Contempt is arguably his finest meta-filmic engagement, and one of my true favourites of his, together with Band of Outsiders (1964).
From the cheeky prologue where cinematographer Raoul Coutard tracks a woman walking only to point the camera directly at us, to the removal of diegetic background sound in a conversational scene, Contempt sees Godard up to his usual brand of mischief, yet the film is quite unlike anything he had done up till that point.
Set against a movie production of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, directed by Fritz Lang who plays himself, we are acquainted with Paul (Michel Piccoli), a writer hired to do rewrites by a hard-nosed American producer (Jack Palance), but ends up getting his personal and professional lives way too intertwined when his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot, whose naked butt is a running visual motif), begins to act strangely around him after a visit on set.
“One must suffer.”
“That’s for sure.”
Although the screen adaptation of Homer’s text features heavily as Paul and Lang philosophically muse about the ancient story and its modern implications, Godard is more interested in foregrounding the deterioration of Paul and Camille’s marriage and drawing poetic parallels with the fatalistic characters written by Homer.
The result is quite stunning, with the emotions that run deep textually surfacing visually and symbolically when you least expect it. Godard doesn’t really do ‘emotional’ cinema, but this is the closest one might get to feeling something transcendent and profound from his work.
Look out for the film’s centrepiece verbal tirade between Paul and Camile that lasts all of thirty suffocating, meandering minutes, with Godard capturing in real-time the awkwardness and deadness of contenting with the other half’s whims and foibles.