Thursday, July 3, 2008

Contempt (1963)

It begins with a shot of a tracking shot. Reminding us that this is a film instantly, Jean-Luc Godard allows the credits, which are not only shown on the screen but spoken, to attract the viewer's attention along with the oncoming camera, which is tracking its subjects, traveling closer to the camera capturing it. In Godard's most commercial film, he simultaneously breaks down and celebrates the art of narrative filmmaking as a double-layered level of storytelling ensues in this, his sublimely colorful, achingly composed Contempt.

Starring Brigitte Bardot as Camille, the ex-typist wife of a hired gun/script doctor screenwriter, Paul (Michel Piccoli) for a piranha of an American producer named Jeremy Prokosch (a beautifully arrogant and swaggeringly hypnotic Jack Palance) trying to extract a marketable film from Fritz Lang (played by Lang himself). Bardot is the centerpiece of Godard's mural. Godard's most emotionally naked film pivots whenever Bardot even merely alters her emotional being, runs her fingers through her hair or asks a sweetly-sounding but actually deeply scathing question or shows off her ostentatious physical features.

The score by Georges Delerue is achingly melancholic; the cinematography by Raoul Coutard is breathtaking. Godard's direction is assured, stately, cinematic: less vibrantly playful than Band of Outsiders, his most purely exhilarating film, more justifiably satisfied with itself than most Godard outings. The film feels both wholly comfortable in the Godard canon, and definitively different at the same time. Godard's films are less stealthy today than they doubtless were considered at the time of their respective releases--today, particularly with his earlier work, the viewer well-acquainted with him knows at least what to partly expect. As with Breathless and Le Petit Soldat and just about every film of his throughout this period, his main focus is on a male-female relationship, what troubles it, what guides it, what soothes it, and what frequently irreparably breaks it. Contempt, in this sense, begins at the ending, and for Godard this must have been something like a quantum leap, and it's also why I have always considered Masculin Feminin--a sublimely structured (despite being separated into fifteen threateningly daunting chapters over the course of 105 minutes, which isn't nearly the chore it may sound like because of Godard's rightfully celebrated playfulness and quite underappreciated romanticism) and yet suitably aimless film about aimless people--almost something of a step backwards, if not artistically then at least in chronological auteur study, since it yet again treads similar ground as Godard's earliest films in the sense of depicting variations of "young love," such as it is, while Contempt examines the breaking point of just a tad "older love," between man and wife. It feels like a film that belongs at the tail end of Godard's more love-obsessed period, as the young insurrectionist filmmaker becomes older, embittered and, as in Godard's case, more insular and insurrectionist.

Bardot's Camille is markedly dissatisfied with her husband, who alternates between jealousy and indifference, passion and disinterest. Paul lives inside his head like all artists, and knowingly or not, he kills his wife's love for him through a delicately mixed but devastatingly palpable mixture of selfishness, weakness and sheer neglect. After she demonstrates just how much contempt she has for him after his own exhibitions of meekness (coupled in Godard's panoply of thematic netting and entwining with the act of selling out to the American producer--a double act of betrayal, both based in relationships of the artist between his own art and his own love), his self-negating presence increases her distaste. Piccoli's performance is a wonderful one, as he wears his hat and smokes his cigar to look like Dean Martin in Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running. His whiny outbursts--"Why don't you love me anymore?"--are so pitiful but true that they emit a kind of parenthetical glow to his every action.

Contempt is probably the kind of film Godard should have continued to make, between Masculin Feminin and La Chinoise and Week End. Like practically all artists, Godard was emphatically more interesting and, perhaps more importantly, much more persuasive when he was still keeping some semblance of impartial order, or just political subtlety intact. Contempt can be read by Godard critics as the ultimate kind of self-centered, bratty and obnoxious finger poked right in the eye of anyone who even remotely finds some common cause with the powers-that-be (in this case, Hollywood producers, who lest we forget, sometimes do allow for great films to be made despite all of the hacks Godard evidently loathes such as Palance's carnivore). It's an interesting point, and it benefits from hindsight: Godard's golden age was a supernova, burning out in approximately nine years, after which he both brazenly and lazily--as only a man of his talents could do at once--became more doctrinaire, didactic and routinely dull. Yet it won't entirely work, as Contempt's primary laser beam is directed squarely at the artist in question, Paul. Like Othello, Palance's Iago is only the mere instigator of the protagonist's evil, in Godard's little play--the crucial decisions are up to our hero. Like Othello, though, Paul is three steps behind and unlike Desdemona, Camille is in a bad mood.

One of the most amusing aspects of Contempt is Lang's performance as the director of the producer's version of "The Odyssey." Lang is not called upon to do much beyond playing himself, but it illustrates just how sensitive to human nature even the most direly fate-obsessed directors are. His analysis of the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope--that of the wandering, vaguely narcissistic he-man warrior enjoying a semblance of the good life, at least in base, hedonistic matters while Penelope stays faithful to her man--echoes the four-cornered dynamic between Camille, Paul, art and selling out. For Camille, Paul's selling out and arguable pimping her out to Prokosch, leaving her with him for a long period of time, are one and the same and his refusal to do anything but suggest she go along with Prokosch aboard his boat later in the film carries with it all of the weight of an infidelity, partly due to the striking, piercing score by Delerue. More openly playing with the audience's heartstrings to his own end, and yet also, just a little uncharacteristically, for the sake of the story itself, Godard's lingering shot of Bardot's Camille looking on with an equally wounded and hateful glare is almost too intense for its own good in its intentionally brackish implications.

Contempt, Godard said, "is a simple film, without any mysteries, done away with appearances... [It] proves in 149 frames that in cinema as much as life, nothing is secret, there is nothing to elucidate, only a need to live and to film." Never trust the artist, though, and sometimes you shouldn't even trust the art. Contempt works multifacetedly as a parallel narrative--and is interestingly the cleanest narrative Godard ever worked with, not surprising considering its more commercially blessed birth. In this regard, to compare him to one of his heroes when he was a young critic, Ingmar Bergman, Contempt is as close an approximation to his Scenes from a Marriage as one will find, which, to go back to the earlier point of chronological auteur study, makes absolutely perfect sense in its position in the Bergman filmography. But who's to say, exactly, ultimately, what fits perfectly where and why? Contempt is more probing, more closed-off, less inclusive than anything Godard made before or after it for a very long time and those are not necessarily negative points. While he may not consider it personally emblematic of his own fixations, we are perfectly free to disagree. In so many ways, it's all there in the opening shot--of a shot.


christian said...

Good stuff. I hesitate to admit I've still never seen CONTEMPT. And I admire much of Godard, especially BREATHLESS and MASCULIN FEMININ -- which is one of those films that feels what the 60's must have felt like to the young.

It's too bad Godard got swallowed up in his meta Marxism...

Alexander Coleman said...

Contempt was the last film of Godard's I saw from that era of his filmmaking (before venturing off into his meta Marxist period as you point out, Christian). It's a crystal clear, arguably "simple" film but wow, it really packs a punch, more so than most of Godard's work... I agree about Masculin Feminin being a film that feels what the '60s must have felt like to the young. Le Petit Soldat is still one of my favorite Godard films, though, and unlike the insuperable Alphaville, it too conveys an equally simple but complicated "message," or more accurately, perspective.

Thanks, Christian.

Craig Kennedy said...

I struggle with Godard, but this is a nice look Alexander.

Contempt is coming next weekend to the Nuart and I'm looking forward to catching it on the big screen for the first time.

The fruity trailer received howls of laughter from the mouth breathers in the audience prior to Stuck recently.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Craig. Hope you like Contempt on the big screen. It played at the Castro in San Francisco in May but things were a bit too busy for me at that time to go see it. The trailer is a howler--I saw a film at the Castro in late March and it played and received quite a reaction from the audience.

Daniel Getahun said...

Fantastic. This really helped me wrap my head around it a little more after seeing it for the first time last week. The next night I saw Band of Outsiders, which I loved, and it was really interesting to compare the two. Both are obviously ripe for multiple viewings.

I may yet get to see Breathless tomorrow, but we'll see. It's been pretty great just seeing those two so far (I missed Two or Three Things I Know About Her and Alphaville and one other one), even though I know I can't process them nearly as well as you!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you greatly, Daniel--I'm supremely pleased to hear that this review was helpful for you after seeing Contempt. What a treat, seeing it for the first time on the big screen!

Band of Outsiders is a gorgeous picture. The word "infectious" seems so unworthy to describe it.

It's fabulous that you saw what you did see, and that you want to see more. Alphaville may make your head spin, but in (I hope) a good way.

Thank you so much for the kind words, as always.

Sam Juliano said...

This was the first review of Alexander's that I had the pleasure and honor of reading months ago, and it prepared me for all these marvelous and erudite examinations of cinema that followed. I applaud Daniel's reaction, and continue to celebrate this masterpiece, the film I rate as Godard's greatest.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam.

Raphael said...

There's no doubt, the dude is absolutely right.
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