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Contempt

Jean-Luc Godard

Special Features | Film Info | Cast & Credits | Reviews | Essays

Essays

CONTEMPT: The Story of a Marriage
by Phillip Lopate

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 McCabe 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.

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