Film Review: Les Mepris (Contempt).
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
France-Italy 1963. 103 min Digital. With English subtitles. 15.
Has a critique of the commercialisation of modern cinema ever looked this good? With Le Mepris, legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard employs both the poise and smouldering looks of the impossibly beautiful Brigitte Bardot, and the sumptuous scope cinematography of DP Raoul Coutard to depict the tangles in the relationship between a compromised French filmmaker and his wife over the course of one summer. Echoing films like Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, the film is itself adapted from the Alberto Moravia’s novel A Ghost at Noon. It has something of a stately air to it, but at times you can feel Godard being playful. This duality, the classical vs the radical, might take some viewers expecting a lush jaunt in the sun off guard. Certainly, viewers should not in expecting a happy time; the translated title of the film is ‘contempt’, and Godard, during the shooting of this film, was apparently feeling quite a fair bit of that (both for the source material and his studio paymasters). The film is currently the centrepiece of a new season, starting this month at the BFI, devoted to the mercurial French filmmaker.
In this study of a rocky marriage and fraught professional relationships, Bardot is the increasingly restless Camille, wife of scriptwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) who is struggling to complete a new filmic adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey for a boorish American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). Prokosch is the classic swaggering figure of the studio system, he objects not at all to plenty of naked female flesh in his films, and is given to tantrums and the throwing of various objects when he doesn’t get his way, which we see him do to hilarious effect in a screening room early on when Javal goes to meet him. Prokosch doesn’t care much for the angle his current director is taking on this film - too arty - so he tempts Javal into signing on to do a rewrite in Italy. Over time, Javal finds himself increasingly worried by the artistic compromises he is making both in this film and in his wider career, but is caught between the slick, dominating Prokosch, the film’s German director Fritz Lang (amusingly cast as himself) and his wife, who is increasingly annoyed by his indecision and herself drawn to the playboy Prokosch, whom she is increasingly left alone with by her self-obsessed husband.
It goes without saying that Bardot is stunning to behold in this film: there is something almost arrogant about her beauty here. As Camille she is unobtainable, unfathomable, uncontrollable; at times hiding behind a pair of sunglasses to ad to the air of stylish mystique, and even donning a black wig at one point (presumably a sly nod to Godard’s muse Anna Karina). The ghost of Karina and the storyline’s focus on the compromises of filmmaking further invite the assumptions that Godard saw some resemblance here to his own life, relationships and career. In fact Godard was borrowing quite a fair bit from his own experiences and directly inserting them into the materials even as production rolled on; for example producer Carlo Ponti was apparently disappointed that Godard’s adaptation of Moravia’s novel contained no nude shots of the then so-hot Bardot, that Godard compromised by adding an explicit scene of Camille naked on a bed with screenwriter-husband Paul in the film’s opening minutes; life truly imitating art and vice versa.
Beyond the sparks between Bardot and Piccoli as they play out their character’s various disintegrations (check the central apartment scene as they circle each other), there are some lush landscapes to enjoy, particular the cliffside mansion where some of the final scenes occur. Godard’s playfulness might jar a little with those expecting a straightforward narrative, the score and visuals are manipulated at times to show the artificiality of what we are seeing (George’s Delerue’s romantic score, for example, keeps fading in and out with often no correlation to the action on screen) and this writer over time found that a little grating.