Contempt, one of Jean-Luc Godard’s greatest masterpieces, has a stately air that breaks with the filmmaker’s earlier, throwaway, hit-and-run manner, as though he were this time allowing himself to aim for cinematic sublimity. It is both his richest study of human relations, and a film very much about a tortured kind of movie love. The film has inspired passionate praise—Sight & Sound critic Colin MacCabe may have gone slightly overboard in dubbing Contempt “the greatest work of art produced in post-war Europe,” but I would say it belongs in the running. It has certainly influenced a generation of filmmakers, including R.W. Fassbinder, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese (who paid his own homage by quoting from the Godard film’s stark, plangent musical score in Casino, and cosponsoring its re-release). Scorsese has called Contempt “brilliant, romantic and genuinely tragic,” adding that “It’s also one of the greatest films ever made about the actual process of filmmaking.”
In 1963, film buffs were drooling over the improbable news that Godard—renowned for his hit-and-run, art house bricolages such as Breathless and My Life to Live—was shooting a big CinemaScope color movie with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance, based on an Alberto Moravia novel, The Ghost at Noon. It sounded almost too good to be true. Then word leaked out that Godard was having problems with his producers, Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine (the distributor of Hercules and other schlock), who were upset that the rough cut was so chaste. Not a single nude scene with B.B.—not even a sexy costume! Godard obliged by adding a prologue of husband and wife (Michel Piccoli and Bardot) in bed, which takes inventory of that sumptuous figure through color filters, while foreshadowing the couple’s fragility: when she asks for reassurance about each part of her body, he reassures her ominously, “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.”
Beyond that “compromise,” Godard refused to budge, saying: “Hadn’t they ever bothered to see a Godard film?”
Ironically, Contempt itself dealt with a conflict between a European director (Fritz Lang playing himself) and a crude American producer, Jerry Prokosch (performed with animal energy by Palance), over a remake of Homer’s Odyssey. Prokosch hires a French screenwriter, Paul (Michel Piccoli), to rewrite Lang’s script. Paul takes the job partly to buy an apartment for his wife, the lovely Camille (Bardot); but in selling his talents, he loses stature in her eyes. Through a series of partial misunderstandings, Camille also thinks her husband is allowing the powerful, predatory Prokosch to flirt with her—or at least has not sufficiently shielded her from that danger. Piccoli, in the performance that made him a star, registers with every nuance the defensive cockiness of an intellectual-turned-hack who feels himself outmanned.
According to Pascal Aubier, a filmmaker who served as Godard’s assistant on Contempt and many of his other sixties pictures, “It was a very tormented production.” Godard, unused to working on such a large scale, was annoyed at the circus atmosphere generated by the paparazzi who followed Brigitte Bardot to Capri. B.B., then at the height of her celebrity, arrived with her latest boyfriend, actor Sami Frey, which further irritated Godard, who liked to have the full attention of his leading ladies. The filmmaker was also not getting along with his wife (and usual star) Anna Karina, and seemed very lonely on the shoot, remembers Aubier; “but then, that’s not unusual for him. Godard also has a knack for making people around him feel awkward, and then using that to bring out tensions in the script.” He antagonized Jack Palance by refusing to consider the actor’s ideas, giving him only physical instructions: three steps to the left, look up. Palance, miserable, kept phoning his agent in America to get him off the picture. The only one Godard got on well with was Fritz Lang, whom he idolized. But Lang was not feeling well, and had to cut short his participation.
No sign of the shooting problems mars the implacable smoothness of the finished product. Godard famously stated that “a movie should have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order.” Contempt, however, adheres to the traditional order: it is built like a well-made three-act tragedy. The first part takes place on the deserted back lots of Rome’s Cinecittà studios and at the producer’s house. The second part—the heart of the film—is an extraordinary, lengthy sequence in the couple’s apartment: a tour de force of psychological realism, as the camera tracks the married couple in their casual moves, opening a Coke, sitting on the john, taking a bath in the other’s presence, doing a bit of work, walking away in the middle of a sentence. (This physical casualness is mimicked by a patient, mobile camera that gives the artful impression of operating in real time.) Meanwhile, they circle around their wound: Paul feels that Camille’s love has changed since that morning—grown colder and contemptuous. She is indeed irritated by him, but still loves him. With the devastating force of an Ibsen play, they keep arguing, retreating, making up, picking the scab, until they find themselves in a darker, more intransigently hostile space.
The third part moves to Capri—the dazzling Casa Malaparte, stepped like a Mayan temple by a disciple of Le Corbusier—for a holiday plus some Odyssey location shooting. Capri is an insidious, “no exit” Elysium where luxury, caprice and natural beauty all converge to shatter the marriage and bring about the inevitable tragedy.
Part of Contempt’s special character is that it exists both as a realistic story and a string of iconic metaphors, connecting its historical layers. Palance’s red Alfa Romeo sweeps in like Zeus’ chariot; when he hurls a film can in disgust, he becomes a discus thrower (“At last you have a feeling for Greek culture,” Lang observes dryly); Bardot donning a black wig seems a temporary stand-in for both Penelope and Anna Karina; Piccoli’s character wears a hat in the bathtub to imitate Dean Martin in Some Came Running (though it makes him resemble Godard himself); Piccoli’s bath towel suggests a Roman toga; Lang is a walking emblem of cinema’s golden age and the survival of catastrophe, his anecdotes invoking Dietrich and run-ins with Goebbels; the Casa Malaparte is both temple and prison. Meanwhile, the CinemaScope camera observes all; approaching on a dolly in the opening shot, it tilts down and toward us like a one-eyed Polyphemus. Or is it Lang’s monocle? (“The eye of the gods has been replaced by cinema,” observes Lang.) Primary colors are intentionally used as shorthand for themes. Bardot in her lush yellow robe on the balcony in Capri incarnates all of paradise about to be lost.
What makes Contempt so unique a viewing experience today, even more than in 1963, is the way it stimulates an audience’s intelligence as well as its senses. Complex and dense, it unapologetically accommodates discussions about Homer, Dante, and German Romantic poetry, meditations on the role of the gods in modern life, the creative process, the deployment of CinemaScope ) Lang sneers that it is only good for showing “snakes and funerals,” but the background-hungry, color-saturated beauty of cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s compositions belies this).
It is also a film about language, as English, French, Italian and German speakers fling their words against an interpreter, Francesca (admirably played by Georgia Moll), in a jai alai of idioms which presciently conveys life in the new global economy, while making an acerbic political comment on power relations between the United States and Europe in the Pax America. (More practically, the polyglot sound track was a strategy to prevent the producers from dubbing the film.)
“Godard is the first filmmaker to bristle with the effort of digesting all previous cinema and to make cinema itself his subject,” wrote critic David Thomson. Certainly Contempt is shot through with film buff references, and it gains veracity and authority from Godard’s familiarity with the business of moviemaking. But far from being a
smarty-pants, self-referential piece about films, it moves us because it is essentially the story of a marriage. Godard makes us care about two likable people who love each other but seem determined to throw their chances for happiness away.
Godard is said to have originally wanted Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak for the husband and wife. Some of Novak’s musing, as-you-desire-me quality in Vertigo adheres to Bardot. In her best acting performance, she is utterly convincing as the tentative, demure ex-secretary pulled into a larger world of glamour by her husband. Despite Godard’s claim that he took Bardot as “a package deal,” and that he “did not try to make Bardot into Camille, but Camille into Bardot,” he actually tampered with the B.B. persona in several ways. First he toyed with having her play the entire film in a brunette wig—depriving her of her trademark blondeness—but eventually settled for using the dark wig as a significant prop. More crucial was Godard’s intuition to suppress the sex kitten of And God Created Woman or Mamzelle Striptease, and to draw on a more modest, prudishly French-bourgeois side of Bardot for the character of Camille. In her proper matching blue sweater and headband, she seems a solemn, reticent, provincial type, not entirely at ease with the shock of her beauty.
When she puts on her brunette wig in the apartment scene, she may be trying to get Paul to regard her as more intelligent than he customarily does—to escape the blond bimbo stereotype. (Her foil, Francesca, the dark-haired interpreter, speaks four languages and discusses Hölderlin’s poetry with Lang.) At one point Paul asks Camille, “Why are you looking so pensive?” and she answers, “Believe it or not I’m thinking. Does that surprise you?” The inequalities in their marriage are painfully exposed: he sees himself as the brain and breadwinner, and her as a sexy trophy. Whatever her new-found contemptuous feelings may be, his own condescension seems to have always been close to the surface. “You’re a complete idiot,” he says when they are alone in Prokosch’s house, and later tellingly blurts out, “Why did I marry a stupid twenty-eight-year-old typist?”
On the face of it, her suspicion that Paul had acted as her “pander” by leaving her with his lecherous employer seems patently unjust. Clearly he had told her to get into Prokosch’s two-seat sports car because he did not want to appear foolishly, uxoriously jealous in the producer’s eyes; and we can only assume he is telling the truth when he says his arrival at Prokosch’s house was delayed by a taxi accident. Still, underneath the unfairness of her (implicit) accusation is a legitimate complaint: he would not have acted so cavalierly if he were not also a little bored with her, and willing to take her for granted. Certainly he is not particularly interested in what she has to say about the minutiae of domesticity: the drapes, lunch with her mother. All this he takes in as a tax paid for marrying a beautiful but undereducated younger woman. Her claims to possessing a mind (when she reads aloud from the Fritz Lang interview book in the tub) only irritate him, and he becomes significantly most enraged when she has the audacity to criticize him for filching other men’s ideas (after he proposes going to a movie for screenwriting inspiration).
Camille also says she liked him better when he was writing detective fiction and they were poor, before he fell in with that “film crowd.” His script work does put him in a more self-abasing position, since screenwriting is nothing if not a school for humiliation. We see this in the way Paul, having watched Prokosch carry on like an ass in the projection room, nevertheless pockets the producer’s personal check, after a moment’s hesitation. (It is precisely at this moment in a Hollywood film that the hero would say: Take your check and shove it!) Paul compounds the problem by seeming to blame her for turning hack, saying he is only taking on the job so that they can finish paying for the apartment. It is important to remember that we are not watching the story of an idealistic writer selling out his literary aspirations, since “detective fiction” is not so elevated a genre to begin with, and since Paul’s last screenplay was some junky-sounding movie called Toto Contra Hercules (a dig at Joseph E. Levine), so that, if anything, the chance to adapt Homer for Fritz Lang is a step up.
More important than issues of work compromise is that Camille has come to despise her husband’s presumption that he can analyze her mind. Not only is this unromantic, suggesting she holds no further mystery, but insultingly, reductive. She is outraged at his speculation that she’s making peace for reasons of self-interest—to keep the apartment. As the camera tracks from one to the other, pausing at a lamp in between, Paul guesses aloud that she is angry at him because she’s seen him patting Francesca’s bottom. Here the lamp is important, not only as an inspired bit of cinematic stylization, but as a means of hiding each from the other, if not from the audience. Camille shakes her head in an astonished no at Paul’s misinterpretation, then catches herself. She scornfully accepts his demeaning reading of her as jealous, saying, “Okay, let’s admit that it’s that. Good, now we’re finished, we don’t have to talk about it anymore.”
After he speculates that she no longer loves him because of his dealings with Prokosch, she tells him: “You’re crazy but…you’re intelligent.” “Then it’s true?” he presses, like a prosecutor. “I didn’t say that…I said you were intelligent,” she repeats, as if to link his “craziness” with his intellectual pride, as the thing responsible for his distorted perceptions.
More than anything, the middle section traces the building of a mood. When Paul demands irritably, “ What’s wrong with you? What’s been bothering you all afternoon?” he seems both to want to confront the problem (admirably), and to bully her out of her sullenness (reprehensibly). At first she evades with a characteristically feminine defense: “I’ve got a right to change my mind.” We see what he doesn’t—the experimental, tentative quality of her hostility: she is “trying on” anger and contempt, not knowing exactly where it will go. Her grudge has a tinge of playacting, as though she fully expects to spring back to affection at any moment. She even makes various conciliating moves, assuring him she loves him, but , because of his insecurities, he refuses this comfort. Paul is a man worrying a canker sore. Whenever Camille begins to forgive, to be tender again, he won’t accept it: he keeps asking her why she no longer loves him, until the hypothesis becomes a reality. Paul is more interested in having his worst nightmares confirmed than in rehabilitating the damage.
Perhaps we can understand this Godardian dynamic better by referring to a little-known but key short of his, “Le nouveau monde,” which he shot in 1962 as part of the compilation film ROGOPAG. The protagonist goes to sleep and wakes up to find everything looking the same but subtly different. Pedestrians pop pills nervously, his girlfriend tells him she no longer loves him—just like that. “The New World” has a sci-fi component: while our hero slept, an atomic device was exploded above Paris, which may account for his girlfriend’s spooky, affectless indifference. But the short is also a dry run for Contempt: one day you wake up and love has magically disappeared.
All through the sixties, Godard was fascinated with the beautiful woman who betrays (Jean Seberg in Breathless), withdraws her love (Chantal Goya in Masculin-Féminin), runs away (Anna Karina in Pierrot le Fou) or is faithless (Bardot in Contempt). What makes Contempt an advance over this somewhat misogynistic obsession with the femme fatale is that here, Godard seems perfectly aware how much at fault his male character is for the loss of the woman’s love.
The film’s psychology shows a rich understanding of the mutual complicities inherent in contempt, along with the fact that trying to alter another person’s contemptuous opinion of yourself is like fighting in quicksand: the more you struggle, the farther in you sink. As William Ian Miller wrote in his book The Anatomy of Disgust: “Another’s contempt for or disgust with us will generate shame and humiliation in us if we concur with the judgment of our compatibility, that is, if we feel the contempt is justified, and will guarantee indignation and even vengeful fury if we feel it is unjustified.” Paul responds both ways to his wife’s harsh judgment: 1) he agrees with her, perhaps out of the intellectual’s constant stock of self-hatred, 2) he considers her totally unjust, which leads him to lash out with fury. He even slaps her—further damaging her shaky esteem for him. In any film today, a man slapping a woman would end the scene (spousal abuse, case closed); but in Contempt we have to keep watching the sequence for twenty-five more minutes, as the ramifications of and adjustments to that slap are digested.
In assessing the film, much depends on whether one regards the director’s sympathies as balanced between the couple, or as one-sidedly male. Some women friends of mine, feminists, report that they can only see the male point of view in Contempt: they regard Bardot’s Camille as scarcely a character, only a projection of male desire and mistrust. I see Godard’s viewpoint as more balanced. True, Piccoli’s edgy performance draws a lot of sympathy to Paul; even when he is being an ass, he seems interesting. But Camille also displays striking insights; her efforts to patch things up endear her to us; and her hurt is palpable.
Pascal Aubier told me point-blank: Godard was on Camille’s side.” In that sense, Contempt can be seen as a form of self-criticism: a male artist analyzing the vanities and self-deceptions of the male ego. (And perhaps, too, an apology: what cinematographer Coutard meant when he called the film Godard’s “love letter to his wife,” Anna Karina.)
Still, it can’t be denied that in the end Camille does betray Paul with the vilely virile Jerry Prokosch. It has been Prokosch’s thesis all along that Homer’s Penelope was faithless. Lang, and Godard by extension, reject this theory as anachronistic sensationalism. Godard, you might say, builds the strongest possible case for Camille through the first two acts, but in Act III this Penelope proves faithless.
Bardot’s Camille is a conventionally subservient woman, brought up to defer to her man. “My husband makes the decisions,” she answers Prokosch when he invites her over for a drink. Later she tells Paul, “If you’re happy, I’m happy.” It is her tragedy that, in experiencing a glimpse of independent selfhood—brought about through the mechanism of contempt, which allows her to distance herself from her husband’s domination—she assumes she has no choice but to flee into the arms of another, more powerful man.
Contempt is an ironic retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. At one point Camille wryly summarizes the Greek epic as “the story of that guy who’s always traveling.” But Paul’s restlessness is internal, making him ill at ease everywhere. In modern life, implies Godard, there is no homecoming, we remain chronically homeless, in barely furnished apartments where the red drapes never arrive. Paul’s Odysseus and Camille’s Penelope keep advancing toward and retreating from each other: never arriving at port.
But the film also resembles another Greek tale, OedipusRex. Paul is infantilely enraged at the threatened removal of the nurturing breast, and jealous of a more powerful male figure who must be battled for the woman’s love. The way he keeps pressing to uncover a truth he would be better off leaving alone is Oedipal, too. His insistent demand to know why Camille has stopped loving him (even after she denies this is the case) helps solidify a tentative role-playing on her part into an objective reality (“You’re right, I no longer love you”). Anxious for reassurance, he will nevertheless only accept negative testimony which corroborates his fears, because only the nightmare has the brutal air of truth, and only touching bottom feels real.
Even in Capri, when the game is up, Paul demands one last time: “Why do you have contempt for me?” She answers: “That I’ll never tell you, even if I were dying.” To this he responds, with his old intellectual vanity, that he knows already. By this point, the reason is truly unimportant. She will never tell him, not because it is such a secret, but because she was already moved beyond dissection of emotions to action: she is leaving him.
Godard spoke uncharitably about Alberto Moravia’s The Ghost at Noon, the novel he adapted for Contempt, calling it “a nice, vulgar read for a train journey.” In fact, he took a good deal of the psychology, characters and plot lines from Moravia—a decent storyteller, now neglected, who was once regarded as a major European writer. Perhaps Godard’s ungenerosity toward Moravia reflects an embarrassment at this debt, or a knee-jerk need to apologize to his avant-garde fans.
The exigencies of making a movie with a comparatively large budget and stars, based on a well-known writer’s novel, limited the experimental-collage side of Godard and forced him to focus on getting across a linear narrative. In the process he was “freed” or “obliged” (depending on one’s point of view) to draw more psychologically shaded, complex characters, whose emotional lives rested on overt causalities and motivations, more so than he had ever demonstrated before or since. Godard himself admitted that he considered Paul the first fully developed character he had gotten on film. Godardians regard Contempt as an anomaly, the master’s most “orthodox” movie. The paradox is that it may also be his finest. Pierrot le Fou has more epic expansiveness, Breathless and Masculin-Féminin more cinematic invention, but in Contempt Godard was able to strike his deepest human chords.
If the film records the process of disenchantment, it is also a seductive bouquet of enthrallments: Bardot’s beauty, primary colors, luxury objects, nature. Contempt marked the first time that Godard went beyond the jolie-laide poetry of cities and revealed his romantic, unironic love of landscapes. The cypresses on Prokosch’s estate exquisitely frame Bardot and Piccoli. Capri sits in the Mediterranean like a jewel in a turquoise setting. The last word in the film is Lang’s assistant director (played by Godard himself) calling out “Silence!” to the crew, after which the camera pans to a tranquilly static ocean. The serene classicism of sea and sky refutes the thrashings of men.
Phillip Lopate is an essayist and novelist.
From Totally, Tenderly, Tragically by Phillip Lopate, copyright ©1998 by Phillip Lopate. Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.