"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 22, 2011

"Contempt" (1963) by Godard (Film review)

Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris ("Contempt," 1963) is the story of the dissolution of a marriage because the wife starts feeling contempt for the husband. It all happens in a day's time. In the early morning there is not a cloud on the horizon: Paul Laval (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) are a happy couple, living in Rome. Paul is a playwright, but that day he gets an offer from vulgar American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the scenario for a film about Odysseus that is being made by director Fritz Lang (played by himself). Remember that this was the period of the "sword-and-sandal" movies, pulpy Italian films about mythological heroes played by muscular American wrestlers, with lots of ladies in skimpy dresses. Paul is promised big bucks for this task, money necessary to finance the couple's new apartment. But Paul goes too far when he – unconsciously? - uses the charms of his beautiful wife to win over the producer.

He leaves them on purpose for a lengthy time together and later, back in their apartment, while bathing and dressing to go out again in the evening, Paul and Camille have a big marital argument. This has been filmed with incisive psychology. Paul keeps trying to be rational, while Camille argues from her emotions. And indeed it is all a matter of feeling, objectively Paul has done nothing wrong, but Camille senses how he tried to use her. It is perhaps also not strengthening his argument that Paul takes a bath with his hat on and a fat cigar in his mouth.

The next day they visit the house of Prokosch on Capri and there the matter reaches a decision: Paul has dropped so much in the esteem of Camille that their marriage is over, although Camille is not at all interested in Prokosch. While its own drama is unveiling, Le Mépris draws parallels with the mythological film Prokosch is making, where Odysseus (Laval) and Poseidon (Prokosch) are rivals for the wife of Odysseus, Penelope.

Le Mépris has been filmed in beautiful colors - stark reds and yellows, a sort of European modernism. The locations are interesting, too, from the Cinecitta studios in Rome shown pastorally empty to the Casa Malaparte with its flat roof top and long staircase on Capri, built by Le Corbusier, which is used in the final part of the film (This house was built in the 1940s by Italian author Curzio Malaparte - see my review of his novel Skin in which the house also plays a part). The sea behind it is immensely blue, as the Mediterranean should be. Godard also includes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the "iconic shot" of Bardot in And God Created Woman. And it is fun to see the legendary director Fritz Lang acting himself.

Contempt has lots of style – you will find that certain colorful shots keep turning around in your head.
Contempt is available in the Criterion Collection.
(Revised August 2014)