Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production: Rome-Paris Films, Films Concordia, Embassy; Technicolor, Franscope, 35mm; running time (restored print): 105 minutes; Italian version shortened, dubbed, with new music, against the director's wishes. Filmed on location in Cinecittà (Rome) and the Villa Curzio Malaparte, Capri. Cost: $1 million (estimated).
Producers: Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti, and Joseph E. Levine; screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard, from the novel Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia; photography: Raoul Coutard; assistant director: Charles Bitsch; editors: Agnes Guillemot and Lila Lakshmanan; sound: William Sivel; music: Georges Delarue.
Cast: Brigitte Bardot (Camile Javal); Michel Piccoli (Paul Javal); Jack Palance (Jerry Prokosch); Georgia Moll (Francesca); Fritz Lang (himself); Jean-Luc Godard (assistant director).
Godard, Jean-Luc, Le Mépris (scenario), in Avant-Scène Cinéma (Paris), May-June 1992.
Interview with Jean Collet, in Jean-Luc Godard, New York, 1968.
Mussman, Tony, "Notes on Contempt," Jean-Luc Godard, New York, 1968.
Interview with Yvonne Baby, in Focus On Godard, Englewood Cliffs, 1972.
Lesage, Julia, Jean-Luc Godard: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1979.
Vimenet, Pascal, Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard: Un film produit parGeorges de Beauregard, Paris, 1991.
Lev, Peter, The Euro-American Cinema, Austin, 1993.
Marie, Michel, Le Mépris, Jean-Luc Godard: etude critique, Paris, 1995.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, New York, 1997.
Lopate, Phillip, Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticismfrom a Lifelong Love Affair With the Movies, New York, 1998.
Silverman, Kaja, and Harun Frocki, Speaking About Godard, New York, 1998.
MacCabe, Colin, "Le Mépris/Il disprezzo/Contempt," in Sight andSound (London), September 1996.
Kehr, Dave, "Gods in the Details: Godard's Contempt," in FilmComment (New York), September-October 1997.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Critical Distance," in Chicago Reader, 5 September 1997.
* * *
Le Mépris is the closest Jean-Luc Godard has ever come to making a Hollywood-style film: international stars, relatively big budget, script based upon a "prestige" novel, glamorous locations shot in color and 'scope. Of course, it is subversive toward all of the above, and is, among other things, about the absurdities of making a Hollywood-style film. Received with a good deal of puzzlement during its initial release, it was greeted with huge critical acclaim upon its rerelease in 1997.
Freely adapting Alberto Moravia's Il disprezzo (Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki's book on Godard supplies detail), Godard tells the story of a writer (Michel Piccoli) who earns the contempt of his wife (Brigitte Bardot) when he appears to pander—in more ways than one—to an American film producer (Jack Palance). Though an aspiring "serious" writer, Paul accepts the high-paying job of dumbing down (as we would now call it) the shooting script of a film of The Odyssey being directed by the venerated Fritz Lang (playing himself), and worse yet, he seems to push his beautiful wife into the philandering producer's path. To be sure, nothing is quite so simple as it seems: the rushes we see from Lang's film are so bizarrely abstract (and unlike anything the real Lang ever directed) that one may imagine the consternation of even a less crass producer than Jerry Prokosch (Palance); and Paul's "crime" against his wife is no more tangible than his urging her to go off with Jerry in the latter's two-seater to his villa while Paul takes a cab. But Le Mépris is among other things a semiotician's delight: Lang's footage and Paul's sendoff of his wife in the sports car are signifiers of much else, not to be taken at face value.
Much of Le Mépris is structured upon contrasts of the Classical and the Modern, though what Godard means by "classical" is complex and partly unorthodox. The Modern is easier to specify: it is Jerry's vulgarity and money-lust, and Paul's neurotic psychologizing over Ulysses' motives for leaving Penelope and taking so long to get back to Ithaca. Clearly Paul projects his own confused feelings about his marriage upon the ancient narrative. If Le Mépris were an allegory, Paul and Jerry would be modern parallels for Ulysses and the Suitors; but neither of them cuts a heroic enough figure for the analogy to be much more than a joke. When Jerry hurls a can of film in a fit of anger, inadvertently looking like a discus thrower, Lang dryly remarks, "Finally you get the feel of Greek culture."
Lang, the spokesman for the Classical (as Camille is the embodiment), insists that in The Oyssey there are no hidden motives, no tortured dissembling—all is starkly forthright. Lang stands for clarity, simplicity, power allied with gracefulness, as his footage with the camera revolving around Greek statues of Poseidon and Athena suggest. In another sense of the term, Godard clearly reveres Lang as a "classic"—both as a filmmaker and as a repository of culture, someone who quotes effortlessly from Dante and Hölderlin. For that matter, American movies from Griffith to Minnelli, alluded to in dialogue and posters scattered through Le Mépris, are classics as well.
Godard evokes the Classical in a variety of other ways as well, beginning with Georges Delarue's score for the film: stark, somber passages, seemingly tragic in mood, punctuating key moments of the drama, as hieratic as the statues in Lang's footage. Equally classical are the Mediterranean vistas so hauntingly photographed in the second half of the film—sunburnt rock, splendid blue sea, cloudless or hazy sky. (Rather more eccentrically, Godard alludes to primal matters by emphasizing the primary colors red, yellow, and blue throughout the film, most abstractly in the opening nude shot of Bardot, which uses a red and a blue filter in turn, plus a yellow cloth in the unfiltered portion.) The elegantly gliding tracking shots have their own serene beauty—though Godard also uses jump cuts and other ways of disregarding continuity rules of the classical cinema. And the face and unclad body of Bardot are equally treated as classical in their stately beauty. The most famous anecdote about the shooting of Le Mépris has to do with producer Joseph E. Levine demanding that Godard insert footage of a nude Bardot, and Godard complying by opening the film with a long take of his star stretched across the full length of the Franscope screen, as if to get it over with at once. But in fact her serene nudity is completely integral to the film's representation of Bardot, including one close-up as she calmly recites a list of "dirty words" and shots of her profile in the Rome villa garden. Camille is compared to one of The Odyssey's Sirens as well as to Penelope, but rather than lure Paul she literally swims away from him near the end of the film. Finally, her siding with Lang against Paul and Jerry (she even reads a book on Lang in the bathtub) is one more way in which Camille/Bardot is aligned with the Classical. With all of this said, one must still be wary of schematizing a film that has so much of a feel of the improvisatory.
Le Mépris is also very much about the collapse of a marriage. The causes remain obscure, in the sense that the film does not present us with a neat set of reasons, Hollywood-style, for the breakdown. Indeed, Camille impatiently dismisses Paul's supposition of one cause of her anger, his desultory pass at Francesca, Jerry's assistant/translator/mistress. But signs of dissatisfaction, even perhaps clues to deeper problems, are scattered through the film. Most obvious is Paul's slapping Camille (after nastily knocking his hand upon a bronze female torso); more subtle is the sports-car incident (though viewers of today must make a cultural adjustment to a world in which husbands "give permission" to wives to be alone with other men). But most often we must draw conclusions from slight variations in tone of voice and body language. All these signs of distance, disagreement, distraction can be observed in the remarkable half-hour scene—practically the whole middle third of the film—in which the couple pace around their half-finished new apartment, arguing, taking baths in turn, flipping through a book of Roman erotic art which Jerry has given Paul to "inspire" him, reconciling and then renewing the quarrel, until Camille cries that Paul fills her with contempt (and Delarue's tragic music bursts out to accompany her). Godard's restless 'scope camera records all this mostly in long shot, often down corridors or through doorways, and most famously tracking back and forth between them as they sit separated by a lamp which Paul flips impatiently on and off.
In countless ways, Godard interrogates not just a marriage but the cinema itself. Here come into play his explicit homages to classic American filmmaking (most amusingly when Paul wears his hat in the bathtub to look like Dean Martin in Some Came Running) and at the same time his disregard of the rules of continuity editing and conventional motivation. Certain plot developments—Paul grabbing a gun but never using it, the unexpected auto crash at the end—seem more like allusions to Hollywood melodrama than integral parts of the film. Le Mépris begins with a shot of Raoul Coutard's camera tracking toward us and peering down at us as we peer up at it, while a voice reads not only the credits (as Orson Welles does at the end of The Magnificent Ambersons) but also a statement about the nature of cinema. In the last shot Lang is still shooting The Odyssey, with Godard himself now playing an assistant director shouting "Silence!" as the camera tracks past the shoot to gaze out at the empty horizon. Godard also plays games with the soundtrack: for example, when our characters talk to one another during a concert, the loud music does not just drop in volume, as convention dictates—it drops out entirely.
Godard surely realized that his big-star, widescreen spectacle of sex and power in a show-business milieu—his own version of The Bad and the Beautiful or Two Weeks in Another Town—would be far from what his producers were hoping for. If Le Mépris is an allegory in any way, it is a tale of a cinematic auteur having either to defy, pander to, or somehow trick the money-men, like Ulysses confronting not so much the Suitors as the Cyclops, while the Siren of beauty and art swims ever outward, toward the horizon.