Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Contempt is Godard for people who
don't like Godard. Its story of a would-be playwright hired by an American
producer to rewrite Homer's Odyssey for the screen is appealingly
self-referential, even postmodern--familiar territory for the Derrida
generation. The legendary French New Wave director keeps the experimental
techniques to a minimum a little film tinting here, a flash-forward
montage there. Fritz Lang appears as himself, Godard hovers in the
background as his assistant, and Jack Palance chews the scenery as the
despotic producer Prokosh (a stab at Godard's producer Joseph E.
But Contempt is much more than a good-natured romp through studio
in-jokes. Framed by the giddy fun of the filmmaking scenes, a quieter,
deeper tale of abrogated responsibility, fading emotions, and fatal
indecision unfolds in a small Roman apartment. Writer Paul (Michel Piccoli)
insists to his beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) that he is only
taking the Odyssey job to pay for their new digs and to make her
happy. But Camille's love for him turns to contempt when he knuckles under
to Prokosh at their first meeting, using the American's interest in his
wife as leverage for getting a job.
The tortuous thread of their marriage unravels slowly, over a single
half-hour scene at the heart of the film. Back and forth go their
arguments, like a lamp Paul turns on and off, like the wig that turns
Bardot's hair from blond to brunette at a whim. It's not until the third
act, on the Odyssey set in Capri, that we understand what draws Paul
to this material: Like Ulysses as interpreted by the screenwriter himself,
he prefers to push decisions off onto others, as if he's doing them a
favor, and then call the results "fate." If the viewer reads this back into
the apartment scene, the movie transcends its navel-gazing obsession with
movies and becomes as universal as Homer's epic.
Certainly among Godard's most accessible films, Contempt features
Bardot's most famous performance, as a wife who consents to be used because
her reliance on her husband--who plucked her out of the typing pool--is
absolute. Fans of Lang will enjoy his offhand remarks about his own career
("Personally, I prefer M"), especially as a world-weary European
foil to Prokosh's delusions of grandeur. And Palance hits exactly the right
note, with hilarious and tragic effect, as the ugly American who aims to
improve on Homer and German expressionism.
The 1997 restoration and rerelease of Contempt also demonstrates
with fresh vigor Godard's way with color. Utilizing a unified palette that
ranges from the ancient daylight of Rome to the cerulean blue of the
Mediterranean to the lipstick-red sofa in Paul and Camille's modernist
apartment, the director views Europe as a place where technology and style
have changed nothing important in human nature since the dawn of time.
Contempt may be a lark when compared to Godard's more challenging
works, but it still plumbs depths unknown to other filmmakers.