Monday, April 23, 2012

Film Re-view | Contempt/Le Mepris (1963)

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.

In this tale of demi-gods and men, rarely can Godard's "shipwrecked victims of the modern world" live up to such noble deeds. They speak different languages and must use a translator (Giorgia Moll) in conversations. Paul is passive and cowardly, testing his wife's fidelity by allowing her to be alone with Prokosch. Bardot's Camille has the beauty of Helen, but is impulsive and enigmatic. For Godard, men and women are indeed ruled by different planets, embodied in the primal reds Bardot wears versus the cool blues of Piccoli.

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.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Film Review | Casino Royale (2006)

Chips and a Dip

by Thomas Delapa

When British actor Daniel Craig was first announced as the new James Bond, hardcore 007 fans went ballistic. "Bland, James Bland," they dubbed him. In his defense, Craig told Entertainment Weekly, "They hate me. They're passionate about it, but I do wish they'd reserve judgment."

Deal or no deal, judgment day has come for Craig and Casino Royale, the 21st Bond movie extravaganza. Get ready for a flush, because this blue-eyed and blond Bond has a license to bore.

In the bygone line of screen Bondage, dating back to the nonpareil Sean Connery and the rudely retired Pierce Brosnan, Craig comes up short (literally) of even George Lazenby, the Aussie actor who had only one assignment, 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The spy who gagged me, Craig is to Connery what Mini-Me is to Austin Powers' Dr. Evil.

Gambling on Craig to carry on their billion-dollar franchise, producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli chose author Ian Fleming's first entry in the phenomenally resilient Bond series. Fleming's ├╝ber secret agent was a cultural product of the Cold War (and British end-of-empire blues), but the fall of the Berlin Wall has only meant that Bond's "license to kill" was upgraded to include renegade Commies, terrorists, mad media moguls and other high-value targets.

Casino Royale deals out a losing hand, starting with the astounding absence of Monty Norman's killer theme music in the opening credits. The screenwriters (including Oscar-winner Paul Haggis) pay lip service to Fleming's 1954 book, but they've modernized it by playing to U.S. audiences in the age of ESPN, not the USSR. Most of the book involves Bond's cryptic game of high-stakes baccarat. Now 007 must go mano a mano with his foe in a made-for-TV game of Texas hold 'em poker. Yee-haw, pardner.

Yet director Martin Campbell's introduction of Bond is neither as card shark nor suave, karate-chopping spy. In a set-piece befitting Jackie Chan, not Jimmy Bond, Craig acrobatically chases an anonymous bad guy through the Ugandan jungle and up and down a construction crane. Surly and jut-jawed, Craig is not a kinder and gentler Bond. According to his exasperated and expendable boss, M (Judi Dench), he's just a blunt instrument.

It's no coincidence that Bond visits a Miami "Body Worlds" exhibit as a prelude to another no-brain chase. Craig's freakish, barrel-chested physique sculpts the new Bond as a Y2K caveman of few words. Craig doesn't even get to say, "My name is Bond, James Bond." This guy would be more comfortable ordering steroids, shaken not stirred, instead of a martini.

Bond's penultimate showdown takes place at a casino in Eastern Europe, where he faces down Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson), a tycoon of terrorism whose evildoing is signified by his bleeding eyeball. Reluctantly bonding with Bond is a dishy British treasury agent (Eva Green) who's supplying the stakes for 007 to play.

Everything is in on the table in Casino Royale's royally dull denouement, from torture and betrayal and death in Venice to Bond's handy pocket defibrillator that could bring him back to life. Campbell and the film's gambling producers shouldn't have bothered. This 007 is DOA, though odds are he'll return to die another day.

First published in Boulder Weekly, 11/22/06