‘Contempt’: Jean-Luc Godard’s transgressive meta-fiction about love, life and cinema with Brigitte Bardot
“All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” – Jean-Luc Godard
A pre-cursor to some of Godard’s increasingly bold experimentations with the cinematic medium, his 1963 adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel, A Ghost at Noon, is a unique part of his filmography. Contempt (Le Mépris) marked Godard’s first foray into the realm of a big-budget production starring big names like French icon Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli, a fact which he kept criticising throughout the film. Can Contempt be reduced to an edgy psychosexual melodrama or is it an exigent investigation of the nature of filmmaking?
Superficially structured as the chronicle of a disintegrating marriage, Contempt is a subversive transposition of Homer’s Odyssey through which Godard launches a powerful commentary about the multiplicity of our neuroses and the relegation of classical values to the illusion of cinema. He is not subtle about his intentions, narrating the names of the collaborators at the start of the film while locking two cameras in a self-reflexive gaze. The fictional nature of Contempt is drilled into our heads by Godard, almost making us feel guilty about even thinking of suspending our disbelief. Michel Piccoli plays the role of Paul, a struggling screenwriter who sells his artistic integrity to an American producer named Jerry (Jack Palance). He is hired by Jerry to rewrite the script for a cinematic rendition of The Odyssey, spearheaded by the “Master of Darkness”: Fritz Lang (who plays himself). Aided by Godard who cameos as his assistant, Lang is a calming presence in the film, who stays out of the chaotic upheavals and is only interested in manifesting his modernist interpretation of Odysseus’ story, a beautiful vision which is constantly rejected by Jerry because he doesn’t think there is a market for it. This is one of the central conflicts in the film and undoubtedly a semi-autobiographical one, the perpetual clash between artistic freedom and authoritarian oversight. In Lang’s youth, it was Nazi Germany from which he fled. In Contempt, it is the American capitalistic system from which he can no longer escape.
Brigitte Bardot stars as a figure of indecipherable beauty, Paul’s wife Camille. Godard initially wanted to cast Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra as the leads, even forced by producer Carlo Ponti to consider the iconic pair of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni at one point. The producers finally convinced Godard to choose Bardot, hoping that they would have been able to cash in on scenes displaying her desirable body but the French auteur decided to make a mockery of those intentions from the opening sequences: featuring a semi-nude Bardot indulging in an intimate conversation with her husband where he celebrates her insecurities. The famous scene was added in post-production, a quasi-psychedelic vision in which Paul declares:
“I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.”
However, things only go downhill from there. Paul embarks on a philosophical journey towards the end of his marriage, stumbling through the labyrinth of love. His tragedy is that he cannot understand why Camille suddenly hates him because she loved him yesterday, not being able to trace the genesis of their separation to the moment where he lets her go with Jerry in his car. Gorgeously shot in Technicolor, Raoul Cotard’s beautiful cinematography (complemented by Georges Delerue’s exquisite score) provides the vital visual language through which the viewer pieces together the scattered parts of this descent into absurdity. Godard incorporates French new wave sensibilities into Contempt’s framework of conventional melodrama, using sublime editing to separate the warring couple. In their apartment, the camera oscillates from Paul to Camille while they try to express themselves. He consciously avoids putting them in a single frame, reinforcing the fundamental state of alienation the characters find themselves in.
Paul projects his insecurities on Camille, constantly asking her whether something happened with Jerry and never taking a decision on his own. His sexual frustrations occasionally convert into acts of physical violence, desperately trying to see something concrete in Camille’s vague answers. In the form of multiple montages, Godard breaks continuity by showing flashbacks and flash-forwards in anticipation of the tragic conclusion. Stream-of-consciousness voiceovers give us an insight into the machinations of the couple’s minds while butchered images and repetitions try and undermine any traditional understanding of the narrative. Godard is unrelenting in his attempt to hit out at governing laws of cinema and fiction, evident in even the smallest of gestures. There is a scene where Paul opens a door in his house, only to step through it after a few seconds and to step through it while indulging the farce of opening it later on. Although it can be dismissed as another example of Godard’s tongue in cheek humour, calling it an act of divulgence seems more appropriate. Buried under the numerous expectations of a $1 million budget, the auteur decided to lash out at everything in sight and even some things which others leave unseen and unsaid.
Critics have likened Paul to Odysseus as well as Godard, Camille to Penelope (Odysseus’ faithful wife) as well as Anna Karina but these associations are arbitrary and inconsequential when compared to the more pressing questions that Contempt asks.
Does the artist have a voice or does the modern world only humour those with the money to back themselves? Paul is an example of the inconsequential protagonist, rendered impotent by modernity. As if deliberately succumbing to the demands of the subject, Camille kisses Jerry in front of him. He quits his job but the film goes on, never stopping to contemplate his absence. Even the secretary, through whom he interpreted the words thrown at him, does not care to spare him a glance. Yes, Jerry and Camille do end up dying in a bloody car accident but they die together. On the other hand, Paul is left alone. Totally, tenderly, tragically alone. We gaze through Godard’s camera at Lang’s camera which tries to translate the myth of Odysseus in a “consumable and marketable” format, eventually panning away to let the frame be overwhelmed by the silent ocean.