Whenever I Hear the Word "Culture," I Bring Out My Checkbook.
Perhaps I'm not like some of the critics at Pajiba as I often find myself discussing my reviews with readers in the comment section, no doubt a by-product of my background as an educator. During my recent review of Dogma, I became involved in a dialogue with a number of readers (Pausner and Spender, in particular) which involved some lamenting for reviews of cinema outside of Hollywood. I was a bit concerned, not because I did not want to partake in this venture, but chiefly because I did not know where to start. I tend to think of myself as a cinephile, a lover of all well-crafted film, regardless of its country of origin. This philosophy, of course, has the side-effect of making my film preferences both numerous and eclectic.
Yet, I also admit that I know more so about certain directors and national cinemas than others. For instance, while I greatly admire Werner Herzog (and relished my opportunity to meet him over the weekend), I'm not extremely well-versed in German film history. My strengths tend to revolve around what could be called cinema movements, such as Italian Neo-Realism or Russian Formalism, brief periods of time where film theory and film practice were aligned in a specific location. Out of all these movements, my knowledge of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) is perhaps the best founded, particularly of the work of Jean-Luc Godard and his colleagues at the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma. This said, I wanted to start off with a review of New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda's latest film The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d'Agnès, 2008), but the film has been granted an extremely limited U.S. release and cannot be seen by any Pajiba reader outside of New York City. So, I settled on my favorite Godard film, widely available on DVD: Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963).
Now, I don't doubt that many of you are already familiar with Godard, whose film Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1960) not only helped usher in the New Wave movement along with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959) and Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) but changed film form forever via its extensive use of the jump-cut. While Breathless is a canonical film, I find myself returning to Contempt far more often due to the perfect balance between theme and form. A note of clarification, the film, despite Godard's presence as director, probably falls outside the temporal and industrial window of the New Wave. The opposite of many of those earlier texts, it is a star-studded, Technicolor and Cinemascope realized, international co-production filmed in Italy. However, it does share two characteristics with those films, most notably a fixation with cinema and an obsession with film form.
The film, an adaptation of Alberto Moravia's novel, finds its focus within the marriage between writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and typist Camille (Brigitte Bardot). At the beginning of the film, Godard provides us with an image of the couple lying naked in bed while the sensuous Camille quizzes Paul regarding his favorite parts of her body. The tension of cynical romanticism of this relationship, as beautifully captured in this scene, begins to tip towards former when Paul is hired by American film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to re-write a screen adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey for Austrian director Fritz Lang (the iconic director of Metropolis and M, who plays himself here). Paul is haunted by the decision, enjoying the paycheck but feeling as if he has artistically prostituted himself to the producer. Inexplicably hoping to cope with this decision, Paul leaves Camille alone with Prokosch, perhaps hoping that the lecherous producer will take advantage of his beautiful wife. Thus, the artistic whore becomes the literal pimp and Camille is, obviously and justly, not happy about it.
Whether or not Prokosch takes advantage of Camille is left up for the viewer to decide. Godard, no doubt relishing in the ambiguity of the situation, decides to focus more on the effect of the action on the couple's relationship than he does on its actual realization. The second-act of the film is a sustained confrontation between the couple as each one of them accuses the other of betrayal. Godard takes close to 30 minutes to convey the scene and it is paced very closely to real-time, has the tendency to either make or break the film for the majority of viewers. Much like the rape in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible (2002), the viewer is stuck watching an extremely uncomfortable scene for an excruciating amount of time. We're witnessing the disintegration of a marriage and any romantic member of the audience is likely to be emotionally shattered by the shrill fighting of Paul and Camille, compounded by both Georges Delerue's heart-breaking score and Raoul Coutard's cinematography.
The act climaxes with Camille revealing her contempt for Paul (hence the title) as the distraught couple leaves for a trip to Capri with Prokosch and Lang in order to begin production of the film, obviously bringing further complication to the relationship until it comes to a running boil and its foreboding end. The ending comes to us as no surprise, as Paul's adaptation of The Odyssey is structured around an Odysseus whose travels served as a ruse for deliberately avoiding Penelope. Thus, in the end Godard isn't so much providing us with an adaptation of Moravia's novel but an adaptation of Paul's jaded version of The Odyssey, set against the background of a film production rather than the fall of Troy. That's certainly one of the elements that has drawn me back to the film over the years, the film's concern with the process of adaptation. As Prokosch and Lang discuss, following a screening of dailies from the film:
PROKOSCH: You've cheated me, Fritz. That's not what is in that script.
LANG: It is!
PROKOSCH: Yes, it's in the script. But it's not what you have on that screen.
LANG: Naturally, because in the script it is written, and on the screen it's pictures. Motion picture, it's called.
In a sick sense, Contempt would make the perfect double-bill to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002).
Of course, Godard's attention to film form also makes the film a transcending experience. As usual, he never allows us to forget the fact that we're watching a film, providing some relief to the emotional rollercoaster we're drawn to like onlookers to a train wreck. Take, for instance, the opening scene (the one I described earlier with Paul and Camille lying in bed). While some will claim it's the calm before the storm, the only romantic moment we ever see Paul and Camille engaging in and a necessary contrast to the rest of the film, I find it incredibly conflicted. The dialogue being exchanged between the couple is rather trite, as if the only thing they have in common is their physical attraction for one another. Moreover, Godard shoots the scene by placing a different Technicolor filter over the camera (yellow, blue, and red), distractingly switching from one to the other as the scene progresses. He further distracts us with the repetition of Delerue's melancholy score pushes us back a bit, alienating us from the material. As presented, the scene is quite ambiguous. I tend to interpret it as foreshadowing rather than emotional contrast.
I would assume it goes without saying that Contempt will not appeal to everyone; it is an emotionally trying film and coldly constructed. Still, I would highly recommend it to any self-proclaimed lover of cinema. It's a poison-penned letter to Godard's harshest mistress, cinema (not his one time actress, wife, and muse Anna Karina!), the complete opposite of his friend and colleague Truffaut's later film, Day for Night (La Nuit Américaine, 1974). Hell, try that as a double-bill. Not only will you get a well-rounded view of the filmmaking process, but of French cinema as well.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.