Movies about movies. There have been a fair few and they’re often excellent works of comedy. “Write about what you know,” said Someone to Someone Else, and writers know about work and interference with that work. From 8½ (1963) to State and Main (2000) to Hollywood Ending (2002), the producer is the enemy and the director a man put upon by all sides. The drama is there and everybody wants a piece out of everybody else. Contempt (1963), or Le mépris, from director Jean-Luc Godard is perhaps one of the most serious (or unfunny) takes on the subject. The setting provides a backdrop for a personal drama that reflects film and the film industry. Or at least that’s what I take to be the case. Either that or it’s the most elaborate double-bluff I’ve ever encountered.
Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) is producing an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey with Fritz Lang (playing himself) as the director. But Prokosch isn’t pleased withohow things are turning out, hoping for a more modern presentation of the characters and their attitudes so he hires Paul (Michel Piccoli) to fix the script. Then Jerry meets Paul’s beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) and takes an immediate shine to her. They agree to get a drink at Jerry’s house and Camille (begrudgingly) drives there with Jerry while Paul follows after in a cab. Once Paul arrives, however, people are all acting strangely and Camille is clearly upset at something. Their relationship deteriorates rapidly as does the writing assignment.
It felt very much like Godard’s first rough draft. The early use of montage (then it’s gone forever), a tracking shot of Giorgia Moll at the very start suggesting a blurred line between the movie and “reality” (then maybe another nod later on), music underlining competing moods all seem like half-thoughts. If this is a complete and thought-out film, then it’s purpose is not to deliver a clear message, but to obscure it in a code created by Godard. “That, there, represents X, that, over there, represents Y, the camera moving like this, represents Z.” The relationship between Paul and Chamille is like that of a director with his audience, the long take, that is reality, the music, that is mood and illusion. Put them together and what do you have? Hell if I know. Because these are guesses and guesses are presumption and I hate to presume. I want a film to help me consider a subject, not consider the film itself. I don’t care what Godard thinks, I care what he can make me think.
Perhaps these complaints are unsubstantiated. Perhaps Godard is only trying to create an impression in order to express the woes in the relationship (rather than the other way round). I love all of the characters except the writer and his relationship with Camille. Jack Palance plays the dictatorial producer to perfection. He’s a little smarmy, a little menacing, and just charming enough to be believable. Lang plays the director of another age that accepts what is written in the script but has enough rebellion inside to do precisely what the producer doesn’t want with the tools afforded to him. One gripe I have against Contempt is that the interplay between Palance and Lang is so limited. Instead, Lang’s main task is to bring up applicable quotations like an oracle rather than to speak in his own voice. Though, upon reflection, that irritation probably has more to do with the fact that I had to read it from French rather than hearing it in English.
I find the central relationship so inexcusably French and dull. Perhaps if the pictures were prettier, but despite the feeling that these long tracking shots are meant to be fresh and interesting, I find them plain and dull, like 4’33” of dull. And when the music is playing it only makes clear how uninteresting the camera is being. Georges Delarue score is possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve heard, but man Godard puts it in like he’s filming a Spanish soap opera. It’s one beautiful piece carved up to sound like more. Look around, look at the beautiful landscape, but then move, we’re always moving. Sometimes the colors are magnificent and the setting balanced perfectly in motion. But am I wrong to want it to work all the time? The only time we aren’t on the movie is when we’re inside an apartment and two people are playing out their stupidly French relationship.
“You do not love me.”
“I do, you are being stupid.”
“No I am not. What did you say?”
“You are lying, I know it. Why are you lying?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“So you admit it!”
“I will never tell you, not even if I am dying!”
“Why don’t you love me?”
Shut up, shut up, SHUT UP! Damn you and your juvenile conversation. It’s too bad because this relationship would be fantastic in a Terrence Malick film. Considering that the year before Le mépris David Lean had directed Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the template existed for a film of exquisite sound and images. A very plausible explanation is that this was all intentional. The relationship was meant to be a frustrating repetition (as many relationships are) and the squandered beauty of their surroundings a reflection of their self-obsession. This is a strategic error. To tell this story, is it better that I feel what the characters feel or understand how the characters feel? I have more than my fair share of opportunities to feel creatively and romantically frustrated without the help of Mr. Godard. I would rather sympathize than empathize. But hey, it’s his movie. Feel free to cripple its entertainment value.
I suspect, like all things I fail to fully appreciate, that further viewings will improve my impression of it. I can admit that it looked swell on Blu-ray.
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