Of all the sins in my life, this is one to which I will confess: I once screened Contempt to a group of film students in the version that circulated, years ago, on television – lacking most of its wide-screen image, palely coloured, indifferently dubbed and (in spots) brutally censored.
Whatever my students saw in that class, it was not Le Mépris as the Nouvelle Vague wonderboy Jean-Luc Godard intended it to be seen in 1963. To finally encounter the film in its proper form, on a big screen, is a revelation and a pure joy. The richness of its colour, the nuances of the performances, the density of its multi-lingual soundtrack – not to mention the immensity of its ambition – at last become clear and palpable.
In the middle of his 'first period' – the brash, flippant, breathtakingly provocative films from À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) to Made in USA (1966) – Godard managed something very different in Contempt. Indeed, in its sad contemplation of philosophical and spiritual themes, it looks strikingly forward to the director's serene later work, such as Je vous salue, Marie! (Hail Mary, 1984) and Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (1991). It may well be his most poignant, wrenching and melancholic testament.
Another quality that distinguishes Contempt from almost every other Godard movie is the seriousness with which it approaches its characters, and the depth it grants them. Paul (Michel Piccoli) is a reluctant writer-for-hire who comes between a bullish American producer Prokosch (Jack Palance, the film's comic relief) and the ageing master Fritz Lang, who are arguing over a screen adaptation of The Odyssey.
Godard throws in many gags, quips and quotable quotes related to the battle of art and industry. But the core of the film is really the relationship between Paul and his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). A casual, uncaring act by Paul – which allows Prokosch to put the moves on Camille – drives an instant wedge in their marriage. The more that Paul tries to fix his error (in the course of a long, brilliant sequence set in a bare apartment), the more Camille's feeling turns from devotion to contempt.
Godard tries to capture the precise, unspoken moment in which a love dies. His film is, on many levels, an elegy for things lost: the type of grand, classical cinema represented by Lang; the philosophical certainties about humans and their Gods contained in Homer; and the free, natural world, rendered with almost bruising beauty, surrounding the film crew in Capri.
In place of these great immutables, the modern world offers only ambiguity and malaise. Godard recognises that his own modernity as a filmmaker is bound up with such prickly neurosis and agonised, nostalgic longing – so he poises Contempt perfectly between sombre classicism and disquieting modernism.
The stylistic markers of this duality occur on every level: in the leisurely camera movements and long takes that are abruptly broken by sudden cuts or mysterious montages; in George Delerue's lush, remarkable, orchestral score that appears and disappears without conventional dramatic cues.
The film begins with a spoken quotation (mistakenly attributed to André Bazin rather than Michel Mourlet): "The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires". It is a world of fantasy, illusion, money and lies. Lang counsels another way: to see the world and film it as it is, without such corrupting veils. Or is that classical ambition itself a fantasy, a dream of perfection that never was?
Godard, modern sceptic that he is, finds himself stuck with his doubts, his amorous problems, and the shards of all these dreams. It is from this mess that he formed Contempt, one of the greatest films of the contemporary era.
© Adrian Martin February 1998