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Tucson Weekly CinemaScope Rebel

After all these years, Godard's "Contempt" is still fun to watch.

By Stacey Richter

JANUARY 26, 1998:  JEAN-LUC GODARD'S Contempt (Le Mépris) has been considered both one of the best films ever made and an extremely interesting failure. Godard directed it in 1963 after several early successes, including his first feature, the 1960 Breathless, a buoyant tribute to trashy American gangster movies. Godard had an exuberant, revolutionary style; he used snappy jump cuts and a hand-held camera that gave his work an on-the-fly, documentary feel that overturned previously accepted techniques for cinematography. Breathless was shot on a tiny budget, but its influence was enormous. Imagine how surprising it would be if a filmmaker like Robert Rodriguez came out of nowhere with a low-budget movie like El Mariachi (only better) and it changed the way people looked at film. That's what Breathless did.

Contempt was Godard's stab at making a commercially slick feature, though the idea of entering the mainstream didn't sit well with him. His producers, Joseph E. Levine and Carlo Ponti, insisted that he shoot in the widescreen format CinemaScope, and that he include additional nude scenes of Brigitte Bardot. Godard responded with the typical rebelliousness of teenagers and avant garde artists: He took every opportunity to thumb his nose at Levine and Ponti.

He gave himself the perfect forum by making a film about filmmaking. Contempt is the story of an ill-fated production of Homer's Odyssey. This Odyssey is being produced by Jeremy Prokosch, a crass, egocentric American (played with evil glee by Jack Palance), a philistine who keeps calling for more naked "mermaids" and seems to think that Homer's classic was set in ancient Rome. (Levine, who himself made a bunch of adventure movies with sparsely clad actors in togas, couldn't have missed the dig).

Prokosch is a guy who throws roaring tantrums while his pretty assistant calmly translates them into French. His film is being directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself), who, with quiet dignity, mouths some of Godard's most cutting dialogue: "CinemaScope is fine for snakes and coffins, but not for people," he advises. (Contrary to this opinion, Godard uses the wide screen with magnificent creativity--letting the camera bounce around like it's following a tennis match at times, holding it static and letting the characters wander in and out at others, and creating a series of strange, beautiful compositions cut in two at the middle).

Despite Godard's deep interest in insulting his producers, he also had artistic motivations for making a film about filmmaking. Godard's work often exhibits a Brechtian interest in the relationship between art and reality (he even quotes Brecht in the dialogue), and the film-in-film format gave him a way to explore this. In fact, the first shot of Contempt is of the production of the first shot of Contempt--we see a camera on a track, shooting the young translator as she walks through a studio lot. (In the final version, this shot shows up a little later, because his producers insisted he insert an earlier nude scene of Bardot.) It's as though Godard wants to remind us that art and life are deeply embedded in one another, and that the jury is still out on which is more genuine or meaningful. He furthers this theme by having a love story within the film (or maybe it is an anti-love story) mirror aspects of The Odyssey as well. Prokosch hires Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), an idealistic writer, to doctor the script. Paul has a beautiful, insecure wife, Camille (Bardot) who abruptly stops loving him--the "contempt" of the title.

Much of the movie is given over to the decaying romance between Paul and Camille. At first, Camille is tender with her husband, but after he encourages her to ride in a car with the predatory Prokosch, she throws a snit that lasts the rest of the movie. Their domestic quarrels are agonizing to watch--Camille is a brat, and their interactions are maddening. It's difficult to figure out what Camille is so upset about, though Godard does manage to keep Bardot unclothed most of the time, which helps fend off the frustration a little.

It is far more interesting to listen to Paul and Fritz Lang discuss the troubles between Odysseus and his wife Penelope, and to see how it echoes the relationship of Camille and Paul. Even when the two are alone in their apartment, Godard often shoots them through arches and windowpanes and doorways--there are always frames within frames, all of it enclosed within the larger frame of the screen. Godard is brilliant at taking a theme (here, of stories within stories) and representing it visually.

It's this sharp, intelligent visual sense that's made Godard a god to so many filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, who was instrumental in Contempt's re-release. (You can see Godard's influence on Scorsese in the quick, sinister jump cuts that pop up now and then in Taxi Driver, which was also just re-released.) But despite the considerable intellectual and visual sharpness of Contempt, it seems not to have aged particularly well. The relationship between Paul and Camille seems melodramatic, and Godard's rebellious attacks on consumerism and capitalism don't have the same charm now they probably had in the 1960s. Still, it's a treat to see such a visually interesting, intellectually ambitious movie on the big screen. They really don't make them like this anymore.


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