One of the most ingenious and multi-layered movies ever made, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt) is a study in twisted, troubling emotional disarray sheathed in exquisite beauty. Beauty that encompasses the sun-kissed French Riviera, intoxicating cinemascope and Technicolor compositions by genius cameraman Raoul Coutard, George Delerue’s heart-melting score, and the seductive allure of Brigitte Bardot, in her finest role.
Recruited into a big-budget, cross-continental production of Homer’s Odyssey, troubled screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) finds himself struggling to accommodate the demands of arrogant American film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) and legendary director Fritz Lang (playing himself), whilst unwittingly losing the love of his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). When the crude and lecherous Prokosch takes a shine to gorgeous Camille, Paul unwisely persuades his wife to take a ride with the American to Cinecittà studios. Deeply hurt by this gesture, Camille becomes openly contemptuous of Paul and their once-happy marriage unravels into a spiral of bitterness, mistrust and tragedy.
In recent years, Godard’s inability to evolve his ideological beliefs beyond 1968 have left him looking like a didactic, old grouch. Back in the sixties however, the man was tossing out bricolage masterpieces like Bande à Part (1964), Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Masculin-Féminine (1966) with astonishing ease. Along with Alphaville, Contempt stands as one of his most accessible films, probably because it adopts an atypical three-act structure and a glossy, Hollywood style façade. However, Godard’s use of these facets is remarkably subversive as adapts the story-structure into a narrative both realistic and allegorical (drawing parallels between American cultural imperialism and ancient Greece), playing with Coutard’s colour saturated prettiness as shorthand for his themes, and honing a crafty parody of the Odyssey. All that plus topless mermaids, post-modernist trickery and witty gags like the moment Prokosch flings a 35mm film canister like a discus. “At last you have a feeling for Greek culture”, Fritz Lang observes dryly.
Loosely adapting a novel called The Ghosts of Noon by Alberto Moravia (whose insightful writing Godard gave too little credit), the Nouvelle Vague examines the age-old conflicts between art and commerce, men and women, the haves and the have-nots, yet also makes this a genuinely tragic love story. In an intentional irony, it is Paul’s desire to provide a secure lifestyle for his wife that drives him to sell his soul and alienate her so deeply. And yet he is guilty of taking Camille for granted, dismissing her intelligence and at one stage calling her “a stupid, twenty-eight year old typist”, even though she sees through his intellectual vanity. The centrepiece of the film is the extraordinary sequence where Godard tracks the slow disintegration of Paul and Camille’s marriage, transforming the simple sight of husband and wife talking into exciting, insightful cinema. Delerue’s music really comes into its own here.
It was Godard’s intention to draw out a more reserved, bourgeois side Bardot’s screen persona, although producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine (the alleged inspiration for Palance’s venal producer) were aghast at the absence of nudity. Godard’s ingenious ‘compromise’ was the now-famous, multi-coloured opening scene where Bardot lists various parts of her anatomy. Strangely, nobody ever mentions the dreamy scenes where the pouty-lipped golden goddess rolls naked on a furry rug, a far more memorably titillating instance of eye-candy. That said, it’s Bardot’s performance that should be praised along with the sublime turns from Piccoli, Palance and Lang. If their characters are the modern incarnations of Greek heroes in heroines, we’re left in no doubt by the end whom Godard regards as the new gods - as he ends the film with a slow zoom into the all-consuming camera’s eye.