Waiting for Godard
by Thomas Delapa
For those filmgoers who believe that world cinema is in desperate need of a renaissance, if not revolution, there's no better antidote than the re-release of Contempt, director Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 modernist masterwork now playing at Denver's Esquire Theatre for a limited run.
Godard, a key figure in the French New Wave that also gave us Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais, made Contempt (Le Mepris) four years after his breathtaking debut in Breathless. A freewheeling homage to the American gangster movie, Breathless made a star of Jean-Paul Belmondo and heralded Godard as a Picasso-like destroyer of the staid conventions of movie-making.
Relatively speaking, Contempt was Godard's first big-budget production. Based on a novel (A Ghost at Noon) by Italian author Alberto Moravia, it was financed by Carlo Ponti (Sophia Loren's husband) and shot on location in Rome and Capri. But what made it a cause celebre was the casting of Brigitte Bardot, then Europe's reigning sex goddess. "B.B." had burst (literally) upon the scene in 1956 in Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman, virtually redefining sexuality in the commercial film. With Bardot aboard, Godard hired Hollywood heavy Jack Palance, an unknown Michel Piccoli and legendary German director Fritz Lang to play himself.
Photographed on luscious widescreen color by Godard ace Raoul Coutard, Contempt is an exemplar introduction to a director who once signed his name, Jean-Luc "Cinema" Godard. It's a difficult, exhilarating film, crammed with allusions to painting, drama, music and other movies. In fact, the finished product was so upsetting to U.S. distributor Joseph E. Levine that Godard was forced to add a nude scene with Bardot, though even that was subverted by Godard the trickster.
From Moravia's novel, Godard extracted, in his words, the "story of a misunderstanding between a man and a woman." Paul (Piccoli) is French writer who's come to Rome's famed Cinecitta studios with his wife Camille (Bardot) at the request of an egomanical American producer, Prokosch (Palance). Prokosch is unhappy with the movie version of Homer's Odyssey being directed by Lang. Then in his seventies, Lang had behind him such landmarks as Metropolis and M and Hollywood hits The Big Heat and You Only Live Once. Art constantly intersects with life in Contempt; to wit, Godard himself appears as the Odyssey's assistant director.
Like his New Wave brethren--most former film critics--Godard was infatuated with the cinema's power and traditions. In the memorable opening, a camera approaches the screen as it follows an actress reading a book. At the end of the shot, the camera leaves her and turns in close-up to us. Godard never wants us to forget that camera, nor of the world it creates, "a world that responds to our desires," says the narrator, quoting the seminal French film critic Andre Bazin.
Film has given us our popular mythology, our equivalent to the Greek epics, but then Homer didn't have to deal with producers, agents and stars. To Godard, Lang acts as the conscience of film, a cultured man who labors with Sisyphean endurance to bring a faithful version of Homer to the screen. But off the set, it's Prokosch who has usurped the role of the gods. Though evidently he despised working for Godard, Palance is marvelous as a titan of venal vulgarity. "I like gods, I know how they feel," he pontificates, reading aphorisms out of a little red book.
Godard's allusions give Contempt a cultural density that's no so far from Joyce's own Ulysses or Eliot in The Waste Land. Homer's work, of course, is an epic of Ulysses' treacherous journey back to Greece after years away fighting in the Trojan War. While Homer's hero battles sea monsters and sirens on the way home, his loyal wife Penelope fends off a gaggle of suitors until his return.
A seer about contemporary gender relations, Godard pessimistically finds little common ground between the sexes. In a scene that lasts a full 30 minutes, Paul and Camille have a meandering, banal--but realistic--argument in their empty new apartment, literally going around in circles as studied by Coutard's fluid camera. Unlike the women of old, Camille isn't content to be merely an appendage to her husband's life, and this change for Paul has turned his love for her into an Achilles' heel.
But Contempt isn't merely talk. It's a gorgeous film, from the crystal blue waters off the island of Capri to Godard's meticulous compositions and Georges Delerue's ominous yet tender romantic score [which Martin Scorsese cribbed in 1995's Casino]. Godard's zeal for cinema is so intense that he visually "quotes" from a number of his favorites, such as Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy and Lang's own silent Siegfried saga, thus adding complex layers of meaning to the story. When Lang tells his crew to prepare to shoot the "Cyclops scene," there's a cut to the camera, a modern one-eyed monster that's devoured many a mortal.
For a time in the heady 1960s, Godard and his daring and smart compatriots opened up the eyes and ears of a generation of hungry filmgoers. They blazed a trail into a new type of cinema that was challenging, literate and passionate. Today that trail is overgrown, ignored or trampled on by profiteers, contemptible celebrity seekers and a conspicuously less demanding public.
Ulysses made it home, but as a near 50-year-old Contempt sorely reminds us, world film today is adrift at sea.
Originally published in Boulder Weekly 12/11/97; minor additions 4/23/12.
Contempt was released as two-disc DVD set by Criterion in 2002.