“CONTEMPT” (1963) Reviewed ★★★★
Tragic chronicle of the demise of a system, of an industry of lies and illusions which could no longer, according to its “auteur”, continue to keep its audience spellbound in its once magical grasp, Contempt (1963) is Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal New Wave statement on the fall of the Hollywood empire. Of all the maverick director’s films from the 1960’s, the bygone days where Godard enjoyed its greatest success in terms of both critical and commercial appreciation, this sprawling adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel of the same name arguably remains to this day his most puzzling as well as intellectually conflicting effort of the period. While its surface elements suggest – and with good reason – the filmmaker’s first foray into mainstream cinema, with the presence of world-class stars (Jack Palance, the notoriously famous Brigitte Bardot), rigorously demanding international producers, a million-dollar budget and, of course, the astonishing visual splendour of technicolor and cinemascope, the tenacious voice of the idiosyncratic mind at its helm is what ultimately propels Contempt to greatness and to a then-uncharted territory of authorial inquiry and cinematic self-reflexivity. Godard was never before nor after subjected to this much outside creative control, yet it is under these totalitarian working conditions that he managed to, ironically, deliver one of his most perversely personal films.
Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli star as Camille and Paul Javal, a couple with strange echoes of Godard himself and Anna Karina, his muse and wife of the time, who were then struggling in their relationship. Paul wishes to write for the theatre but must win his daily bread by accepting lesser types of creative jobs; he is offered the chance by a crass American producer to re-write more conventional, audience-friendly scenes for a Hollywood epic reworking of Homer’s The Odyssey, which Fritz Lang (playing himself), has turned into a prototypical art film. It already becomes clear that Paul’s artistic dilemma becomes Godard’s own, and in a sense, Contempt can be understood as a film about its own making, about the forever-enduring clash between the artistic spirit and the institution wishing to suppress its individuality in favour of the demands of the market. Godard never got along with the film’s funders as they constantly disagreed on what the final product should look like, and the film is indeed full of compromises, full of scenes that don’t connect emotionally nor aesthetically with the others (such as the forced inclusion of Bardot nude shots halfway through the film or the exceedingly prolonged scene of domestic intimacy between the couple). Godard played by its own rules and would find a way of answering the producers’ demands without selling out, making for an often shape-shifting yet always personal cinematic expression.
The many flaws of Contempt, the direct rendition onto celluloid of this clash between Godard and the system, essentially become the film’s virtues, for they present the portrait of a film artist at a crossroads, both in his private and professional life. The character played by Bardot, as mentioned earlier, is directly modeled after Karina, as she even wears at one point a wig identical to the character of Nana in Vivre sa vie. Paul, rational, down-to-earth, thinks his wife becomes contemptuous of him because he considers selling his artistic integrity for easy money, although this remains unclear due to Camille’s spontaneous, impulsive personality. The feelings she has for her husband can change in a heartbeat. The irrational, almost obnoxious nature of most of her dialogue and behaviour can be interpreted as Godard’s own incomprehension towards his wife.
Moreover, what appeared like sheer enthusiasm towards classical Hollywood filmmaking in Breathless three years earlier is depicted like a long-dead era in Contempt. Fritz Lang, wandering through the picture like a melancholic ghost of the cinema’s golden age, is the only film’s true moral figure; his directorial career having come to an end some years earlier, his presence on screen evokes the dusk of an era of Hollywood auteurism that was so cherished by the Cahiers du cinema group. Having worked with American and Italian producers, Godard, like Paul Jovial, was more than ever before aware of the industrial nature of film, a stark realization that would lead him away from the studios. He would then go on to shoot some of the most iconoclastic experiments of the 1960’s, including the film-essay Two or Three Things I Know About Her and the feverishly nihilistic Week End. In this regard, Contempt represents an auteurist peak for Godard almost in spite of itself and its shortcomings.