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Whenever I Hear the Word "Culture," I Bring Out My Checkbook.

Contempt / Drew Morton

Pajiba Blockbusters | August 6, 2009 | Comments (10)

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.

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Given your interest and knowledge of the New Wave I'm curious what you thought of The Dreamers.

Personally, I thought it was almost leeringly voyeuristic, but not in an "I'm going to make you uncomfortable as part of the experience to show you something way," but rather in an "I refuse to recognize that there's any difference in what it's appropriate for me to put on the screen now vs. when I was a young man," kind of way. That would have been one thing if the film were a standalone piece, but it's effectively about what Bertolucci and his contemporaries and heroes were up to in the past. It's a nostalgia piece bereft of the meaning of the day or any insight gained in the intervening years. A two hour tale of "remember when we used to burn things in the street and give speeches and get girls to take their clothes off? That was awesome. Fin."

I'd like to see some of the original New Wave so I can be less of a Philistine, and I really appreciate you bringing some important knowledge of cinematic history to light here. Serious filmmakers are aware of these movements and probably reference them all the time and if we're not aware, we're missing out.

Posted by: Eep at August 6, 2009 7:33 PM

My roommate - much more of a cinephile than I am - swears by this film. I guess I just didn't get it. I only watched it the once several years ago. I did recognize its art on some levels, but I have never had a desire to revisit it.

Thanks for the review and the insights, though. Perhaps I'll check it out again one of these days.

Posted by: DarthCorleone at August 6, 2009 7:35 PM

My deepest thanks and appreciation, Drew. Watching these films and learning more about them makes us all the more appreciative of the art of moviemaking.
Thanks for responding in such a timely manner and critiquing a great movie from a legendary director.

Posted by: Spender at August 6, 2009 8:08 PM


I remember liking "The Dreamers," not loving it. Yet, I haven't re-watched it since I saw it in the theater, so my impressions probably have changed. Perhaps I'll write it up next month, as I'm working on a Pajiba retrospective for the next few weeks.


Your reaction is like many viewers. It's a trying piece of filmmaking and not even all cinephiles love it (my wife included). At least you gave it a viewing!


Thanks for the kind words. Hope you enjoyed the review.

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 6, 2009 8:15 PM

I really enjoy your reviews, Drew. I enjoy being made aware of great films. Since I've seen the films you named that kicked started the New Wave, maybe I'll give this one a try.

Posted by: kelsy at August 6, 2009 10:55 PM

*make that kick started

Posted by: kelsy at August 6, 2009 10:56 PM


If you enjoyed the others, you'll probably enjoy this. It's not nearly as playful as Band of Outsiders or Breathless, but its before Godard went anti-narrative in Made in USA and Deux ou Trois Choses.

I also enjoy Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (Jules and Jim is also an obvious favorite), Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7, Marker's La Jette (12 Monkeys was later based on it), Rohmer (Claire's Knee), and Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samurai, Le Cercle Rouge).

Posted by: Drew Morton at August 7, 2009 1:44 AM

Drew, I think you're brilliant. To take an old movie like that and write a review that I actually read right through to the end is a miracle.

Still, I'd prefer it if you kept doing reviews of movies I've actually seen or would see, like the one you did for Dogma. Not that it's mutually exclusive.

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Chugga at August 7, 2009 4:13 AM

I think Contempt is one of those films that I have to just watch a few extra times to truly appreciate. I love the opening scene, if only because it's Bridgette Bardot saying something like, "Well, if you love all of my body parts, you love me," which sounds like something a cynical and sarcastic pin-up girl would say. And yeah, the contempt is just so painful at the end.

The French New Wave is such an iffy period for me. I either love the films or hate them. I really like Shoot the Piano player and Jules et Jim, but I cannot stand Claire's Knee. Hated it. It's been a while since I've seen it, but I remember growing just sooo tired with the "I'm in love/lust with an underage girl" plot.

My recommendations, besides the two above would be Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, and Le Boucher (which I think is just on the cusp of the New Wave).

Posted by: Maggie at August 7, 2009 4:54 AM

Of all the beautifully painful movies out there in the world, nothing hurts like Contempt. I remember showing it to my boyfriend years ago. Afterward, he essentially told me, "Thanks, that was great. But I feel horrible and will probably never ever watch that again."

Posted by: amanda marie at August 7, 2009 12:24 PM

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