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"Gods, I like Gods. I know exactly how they feel." -- Jack Prokosch in Contempt


contempt_1.jpg (6034 bytes)No director in the history of cinema is more obsessed with the connection between human relations and film history than Jean-Luc Godard. His Contempt, made in 1963, is the clearest and most moving example of this obsession.

In the opening shot, Godard destroys the line that separates film from reality: In the distance, at the far end of a receding line of dolly tracks, a camera crew follows a pair of actors as they slowly stroll toward the screen. As they approach, they move out of frame, leaving the camera operator in the center of the image. He carefully adjusts his lens until it's aimed directly at us, the audience. Like it or not, we've just been cast in a Godard film.

contempt_5.jpg (6408 bytes)Contempt (Le Mepris) is Godard's mostly faithful adaptation of an Alberto Moravia novel. The film revolves around the disintegrating relationship between screenwriter Paul Javel (Michel Piccoli) and his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot).

When Paul is roped into a project with the crass American film producer, Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance), Camille's emotions curdle as she watches her husband prostitute himself. Prokosch has come to Europe to bastardize an adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey, directed by the legendary Fritz Lang (playing himself). Lang wants to make slow, cerebral art. Prokosch wants a rewrite filled with topless mermaids wiggling their tails. Paul needs the money. In two key scenes, Camille wants Paul to intervene when Prokosch makes lecherous advances toward her, but Paul doesn't. Camille is humiliated. Her frustration eventually festers into the acidic emotion of the title, and the undeniable power and beauty of the film comes from feeling her pain.

contempt_4.jpg (5926 bytes)Most of the film mirrors events off-screen, but you don't need to know the background to be gripped by a relationship—not to mention an art form—that suffers from the pressure of decadence and decay. However, the background certainly adds dimension: Paul and Camille's relationship reflects Godard's own with Anna Karina, the actress to whom he was married at the time. (Cinematographer Raoul Coutard referred to Contempt as "a letter to [Godard's] wife.") Furthermore, Godard's animosity for Carlo Ponti, the Italian producer of the film, and Joseph E. Levine, the "self-proclaimed" American movie mogul who also had a hand in production, is visible in Godard's portrayal of Prokosch. The scene in which Prokosch kicks film canisters around a screening room is based on an actual Ponti temper tantrum.

contempt_3.jpg (7136 bytes)Adding to the on- and off-screen venom, Palance and Godard squabbled continuously during production. At one point in the film, after another Prokosch tantrum, Lang says quietly, "Is that a request or an order?" (Babbling away after the fact on The Tonight Show, and continuing the dissolution between Godard's film and the real world, Palance made a passing reference to his work with "some French director.") As Godard remarked in an interview, "Contempt is the story of this world."

Godard, in 1963, was disillusioned by the crisis facing both the American and European film industries. Not only was the "golden age" of the American studio system collapsing—the hallowed place that had given birth to the auteurs that French critics like Godard had championed—the European industry was facing the onslaught of American culture. Godard: "It's always a bit sad when I see Lang in the film. He was touched that the young filmmakers admired him, but it was mostly because he needed money that he accepted." (Imagine a reality where Fritz Lang compromises himself for money.)

contempt_2.jpg (6479 bytes)Using his perception of a faltering industry, and wedding it to intimate observation of his own personal relationships, Godard came up with the most orthodox film he's ever made. Not only is it almost "normal" storytelling, it's the clearest window into the tradition of Godard himself. He's a director who doesn't just make milestones—he makes milestones by referencing the world of film around him. Contempt is ultimately a picture about filmmaking, but, like all of film history, it's Godard's autobiography.

-- capsule taken in part from Cinemania

Contempt [Le mepris] - Details

Made in: 1963
Genre: Drama
Filmed in: Color
Language: French
Length: 105min

Brigitte Bardot 
Jack Palance
Michel Piccoli
Giorgia Moll
Fritz Lang
Jean-Luc Godard
Raoul Coutard

Camille Javal
Jeremy Prokosch
Paul Javal
Francesca Vanini
Assistant Director

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Writing credits: Jean-Luc Godard & Alberto Moravia
Produced by: Georges de Beauregard, Joseph E. Levine,
                       & Carlo Ponti
Music by: Georges Delerue
Cinematography by: Raoul Coutard
Film Editing by: Agnès Guillemot & Lila Lakshmanan