Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Michel Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll
Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) baffled audiences when it first came out. In fact, it baffled the filmmaker’s admirers before it came out. Why was Godard, the most outspoken and difficult of the New Wave directors, making what appeared to be a big-budget, glossy soap opera starring Brigitte Bardot—and in Cinemascope, no less? The finished film didn’t help. Here they found the “inventor” of the jump cut making a very formal—even stiff—movie mostly comprised of long takes captured by a slowly roving camera. This was nothing like Godard. And I think that was the point—or at least one of the points.
The not-all-that-interesting story of the disintegration of the marriage of a dissatisfied crime-fiction-writer-turned-playwright-turned-screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) and his bored, rather vapid wife (Bardot) whose growing contempt for her husband seems to be what the title is about is only a small part of the movie’s raison d’être. For that matter, it’s only a small part of the many levels of contempt expressed by the film.
There’s also the writer’s contempt for the crude, smarmy producer (Jack Palance) to whom he’s whored himself out. This, in turn, reflects Godard’s own contempt for one of the film’s producers, Joseph E. Levine. The producer is also held in contempt by legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang (playing himself), who finds himself working as a hired hand for this vulgar creature. There’s also a measure of contempt evidenced for Bardot the movie star. Her propensity to disrobe for a movie is mocked in the film’s opening scene (supposedly inserted at the last minute as a sop to Levine’s demands for a naked Bardot). In the scene, she lies nude on a bed and reduces herself to a collection of body parts (“Do you like my knees?” “Do you like my ass?” “Do you like my breasts?”) in a conversation with her husband. At one point, the costuming clearly places Bardot on the level of the film’s furniture when the red towel she’s draped in makes her disappear into the ugly red sofa. The writer also seethes with self-contempt over his choice not just to work on this movie, but to constantly suggest that his wife be nice to the producer.
There may even be a certain amount of contempt for the great Lang, who’s obviously compromised to work for the producer. Beyond that, Godard has made Contempt in Cinemascope (a fact boldly announced in the spoken credits), a format Lang despised as being suitable only “for snakes and funerals.” And that may get nearer to the core of the film than anything, because in the end the film speaks volumes about Godard’s own contempt for the cineast crowd who are taking the New Wave, as well as the rush to legitimize the art of film, so very seriously (having sex-kitten Bardot read a book on Lang in the bath cannot be accidental). Perhaps there’s even a degree of self-contempt in it all. But however you read the film, it’s a powerful, uncomfortable and essential work.
Contempt, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, March 14, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.