Contempt (Le Mépris) [DVD]
Director : Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay : Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel The Ghost at Noon by Alberto Moravia))
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1963
Stars : Brigitte Bardot (Camille Javal), Michel Piccoli (Paul Javal), Jack Palance (Jeremy Prokosch), Giorgia Moll (Francesca Vanini), Fritz Lang (Himself)
Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris) is a film about two subjects, one on an intimate, personal scale and the other on a larger, international scale: the dissolution of a marriage and the role of film as art in a global economy. While these two subjects would seem to have little in common, Godard makes them work together, allowing each to reflect on the other.
While Contempt is seen by many as Godard’s most “commercial” or “mainstream” film, it is also one of his most emotionally stirring and deeply felt. At the center of the film is the theme of relationships and their fragile nature, and it is here that Godard makes the connection most clearly between marriages and filmmaking. The film follows the slow dissolution of the marriage between Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), an ambitious writer, and his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), a 28-year-old ex-typist. Paul has been hired by a crass American producer named Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to make an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey more commercial. The film’s director, Fritz Lang, who is played by the great German director of the same name, is more artistically minded and has been producing footage that Prokosch deems uncommercial.
Lang and Prokosch argue bitterly about their visions of the film, which parallels the debates between Paul and Camille about their visions of their life together. Both relationships falter because of misunderstandings, although for different reasons. Prokosch and Lang have genuinely different viewpoints, which makes the tensions in their relationship difficult, but understandable. Paul and Camille’s trajectory is more tragic because we get the sense that they truly love each other, but there are a series of small misconceptions and mistakes made by both that cause their love to turn to contempt.
The film is divided into three parts. The first third takes place at Italy’s famed Cinecittá studios where The Odyssey is being filmed and at Prokosch’s country home. It is here that we meet all the major characters, which also includes Francesca Vanini (Giorgia Moll), a polyglot translator who helps everyone understand everyone else, which underscores the film’s thematic concern with communication, or lack thereof. It is during this portion of the film that Paul makes the first of a series of mistakes, when he gives Camille the idea (perhaps mistaken, perhaps not—we never know for sure) that he is purposefully allowing Prokosch—his new boss—to flirt with her and perhaps even sleep with her. That Paul puts Camille in this position is his mistake, but that she makes several significant assumptions without really discussing it with him is her mistake.
The center third of the film is an amazing, prolonged sequence that takes place entirely within Paul and Camille’s new apartment, which she apparently wanted and he feels the pressure to pay for by accepting jobs with people like Prokosch. Essentially a lengthy conversation, this section of the film is the most crucial, as it is during this time that whatever lingering strands of love that are holding Paul and Camille together are slowly cut, causing their relationship to fall into an irretrievable state of disarray. What is so amazing about this sequence is how subtle it is—we watch the dissolution of a relationship, but there is a never a clear-cut moment when you know it will end. Rather, it ebbs and flows while Godard’s exquisitely natural camera glides about the apartment, constantly emphasizing their growing emotional distance, often framing them at opposite ends of the widescreen frame with a barrier between them.
Both Bardot and Piccoli are excellent in their roles, conveying how each of their character’s emotions slowly evolve through the frustrations and misunderstandings. Camille, who has always deferred to her husband (at one point, she tells Prokosch “My husband makes all the decisions”), seems to grow in confidence as she argues with Paul, finding her footing for the first time in their relationship, even if it is in opposition to her husband. Paul, on the other hand, grows more and more pathetic and desperate, at he constantly insists that Camille doesn’t love him anymore even when she insists that she does. The sly suggestion here is that Paul literally drives Camille’s love to become contempt through his refusal to accept what she has to say, although there is plenty to suggest that Camille is as much at fault by not being completely forthcoming.
The last third of the film takes place during a location shoot for The Odyssey at the steeped Casa Malaparte on the island of Capri. It is here that the two thematic strands of the film—marriage and filmmaking—come together as Paul and Camille finally face their fate during the production of a film that ironically mimics their relationship. The story of Odysseus and his long-awaited return to his beloved wife Penelope only to find her surrounded by suitors who have given him up for dead has long been held up as a mythic ode to the powerful of marriage. Yet, Prokosch argues that Penelope has always been unfaithful, which would seem to implicate Camille in her failed marriage, particularly when she finally gives in to Prokosch’s advances.
Yet, Paul is never shown to be without fault, and the chief strength of Contempt as drama is that Godard never offers easy answers. His previous films had almost invariably depicted men betrayed by their women, and Contempt might seem to fall into that category. But, Paul holds quite a bit of the responsibility for Camille’s eventual infidelity, even though that doesn’t excuse it. Godard shows that both Paul and Camille make their own decisions and have to live with them in the end. This existential viewpoint extends to the “marriage” between Lang and Prokosch, as well. Much like Camille and Paul, neither of them is “wrong.” Lang wants a more artistic film, Prokosch wants a more commercial film. Both have their reasons, and ultimately it boils down to a power struggle, with one having to give in to the other. We are never sure exactly what that final version of The Odyssey will be, much as we are unsure what will ultimately become of Paul once Camille and Prokosch are out of his life, but we hope for the best.
|Contempt Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Release Date||December 6, 2002|
| 2.35:1 (Anamorphic)|
For the first time, Contempt has been made available in its original Franscope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on home video, in a stunning new anamorphic high-definition transfer made from a 35mm interpositive struck from the restored negative and supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. The resulting image is marvelous, with fine detail and a beautiful palette of deeply saturated primary colors, from the intense red of Prokosch’s fiery Alpha Romeo to the crystal blue waters around Capri.
| French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural |
English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Both the original French soundtrack (which also contains a good deal of English and Italian dialogue) and a dubbed English soundtrack are available in Dolby Digital monaural. In terms of audio quality, the French soundtrack is far superior to the English dub, which contains a good deal of ambient hiss and doesn’t sound as clear or natural. The English dub is also a bit strange in that one of the major characters is a translator, so most of her lines of dialogue had to be rewritten to accommodate the fact that she didn’t have anything to translate with everyone speaking English.
| Audio commentary by film scholar Robert Stam|
Film scholar Robert Stam offers an insightful screen-specific audio commentary that is, not surprisingly, largely academic in nature, but is still a highly enjoyable listen, even for those who don’t read film theory in their spare time. He offers his own interpretations of each scene in addition to plenty of historical and cultural context, which is of key importance in understanding what Godard was trying to accomplish.
The Dinosaur and the Baby (1967), a conversation between Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang
Encounter With Fritz Lang
Le Parti des Choses: Bardot et Godard and Paparazzi
Excerpt from 1964 TV interview with Jean-Luc Godard
Video interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard
Widescreen vs. Full-Frame Demonstration
Original theatrical trailer
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick