It has been 50 years since Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece of French new wave cinema, Le Mépris or Contempt, was released. The film conveys new wave symbolism par excellence, where the breathtaking, envious Grecian-like scenery juxtaposes the insidious disintegration of a marriage. It conveys Godard’s subtlety brilliantly, though despite the simplicity of the situation, Godard illuminates it to gargantuan importance and turns something seemingly innocuous into something tremendously heartbreaking. The film also established Brigitte Bardot as more than just a blonde bombshell. Despite reluctance from Godard to cast her over Anna Karina, Bardot’s performance is powerful and incredibly authentic.
The film is based on the 1954 Italian novel Il disprezzo, or A Ghost at Noon. Bardot plays Camille Javal, whose husband, Paul, has been asked to rewrite the screenplay for The Odyssey, a struggling film where artistic differences have hindered the completion of the script. Paul becomes preoccupied with writing the script and absentmindedly brushes off his beautiful wife to billionaire playboy Jeremy Prokosch, played by Jack Pallance. Famed director Fritz Lang plays himself, whose obscure rendering of the film is not to Jeremy’s taste, who demands something more commercial. Lang’s frustration can be mirrored by Godard’s own desires for Le Mépris, and the pressure put on him to make it a more commercially viable film.
When smarmy Jeremy asks Camille to take a ride with him in his car, despite hesitation from Camille her husband urges her to go. Immediately the sense of abandonment is put in place, and without needing to see Camille’s expression we can taste the carelessness of Paul, who seems to impart to her that he does not care whether she is seduced by another man or not, blatantly and unwittingly informing her of where they stand.
Contempt is not as simplistic as it may appear; it is not a mere telling of rejection but of absolute dissolution, of modernized romance and the failings of modernity.
The film exists as somewhat of a mise-en-abyme, or a film within a film, comparing the superlative world of Homer and The Odyssey with the contemporary life of marital woes. It is a poignant statement on how ethereal beauty can overshadow the insidious realities of life, though it also makes a bold statement on the dire consequences of the male ego, from a feminist perspective, while also acting as an observation on cinema itself.
Perhaps the hallmark scene of the entire film is the thirty minute argument between Paul and Camille, constricted to a small room in their apartment rather than outside in the open spaces of Rome. Like Jean Eustache’s La Maman et La Putain (1973), these scenarios and depictions of romantic disputes are explicit in their authenticity and moreover unnervingly accurate — we are left to digest the ugly realities of relationships where the banal is illuminated. A more commercial counterpart would devote only five minutes at most to something that is considered overwhelmingly important in French cinema. In these scenes Bardot wears a black wig, and her lustrous blonde locks vanish beneath a darker guise. Whatever symbolism can be read in this can also be discarded since Godard’s original choice to play Camille was his wife and muse Anna Karina. And here, of course, is yet another insight into the film since it emerges when Godard and Karina’s own relationship broke down. Where several films attempt to show the end of love with bittersweet tones, in an attempt to manufacture a dawn behind the darkness, in Contempt there is nothing left to salvage.
Throughout the film exists a separation between the modern landscape of the city with that of the natural setting; Bardot’s contempt for Paul begins outside in the landscape, where the veneer of civilization no longer seems to contain her civility for him, within skyscrapers and walls. The natural world, then, beckons for realities and truths to come forth. As Daniel Morgan writes in Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (2013), Le Mépris shows how “the narrative is staged as an explicit movement from urban to pastoral settings: the world of nature is associated with the Mediterranean, far from major cities”. There is a greater use of natural symbolism in Godard than perhaps any other new wave auteur. One forgets that this film was adapted from a book that Godard called “a nice, vulgar read for a train journey”. Godard actually takes a substantial chunk out of the book’s material and uses it for dialogue in his film, though switching it around to different characters. This may be one of the few instances where an adaptation triumphs over its literary predecessor, so symbolic is the visual component.
Contempt is not a comment on love alone, but reflects on the changes in or, of course, the death of cinema itself. As Jeremy proclaims, “Only yesterday there were kings here…this is my last kingdom!” This line is then interpreted to mean C’est la fin du cinema [It is the end of cinema].
Following on from this is Lang’s invaluable atheistic commentary, where the death of cinema can be aligned to Nietzsche’s death of God. He states: “Jerry, don’t forget. The gods have not created man. Man has created gods,” before claiming that “Now it’s no longer the presence of God, but the absence of God, that reassures man. It’s very strange, but true.” Cinema, then, is seen as a realm, previously inhabited by gods, now turned into a void encapsulated by absences. And while it is not a new theme for Godard to explore, it is in his Contempt that cinema’s demise is most strongly pursued, the nostalgic contempt for what is, as opposed to the reality that has replaced the past, and the callous discarding of things of beauty — great cinema and great women.
Yet Contempt is irrevocably a work of art. Georges Delerue’s score and the seductive imagery through the Francscope cinematography leave a lasting impression. However this impression is ultimately conflicted: the unrestrained beauty of both film score and Hellenic scenery is almost torturous and seems to communicate the message of the ultimate hollow nature of beauty — paralleled with Camille’s own, as her evident beauty is at first revered by Paul in the notorious red-filtered nude scene, before being discarded in the light of day. And of course this is brought to a tragic end as Camille is transformed from the metaphoric victim to the fatal one, transforming beauty into something trivial. On this scene, Godard comments that he did not wish to show the crash scene, and so we are left with the ambiguity of death, of beauty, of cinema, of whatever we can think of. It is a film of endings.
While Pierrot le Fou (1965), À bout de soufflé (1960), and Masculin Féminin (1966) are inherently much more experimental, leaving Le Mépris as his most dynamic work, it is also, ironically, regarded as Godard’s finest work. But it’s the film’s simplicity which carries it from obscurity to greatness, working with the utter banalities and civilities of human emotion to craft something that need not be overly ambitious or thorough. Instead the story is replete with melancholic tones that every person can understand and digest. Mercifully Godard sides with the woman in this film, though whether or not he intended to make her the victim is of greater mystery. The music certainly seems to direct us that way. As the creators of The Sopranos stated, they did not wish to have a score lest it tell the audience how to feel.
Fifty years on the work is still considered a masterpiece, and as Colin MacCabe writes in Sight and Sound, it is the finest postwar European film. Godard’s subsequent works, including Bande à part (1964) and Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965) are certainly departures from the tremendous emotional toll of Contempt, whose epic overtones and brutal emotionalism have placed it high up on the ladder of terrific films. As the subject of much intellectual, scholarly or friendly debate, it persists in welcoming an endless stream of interpretations, most of which seem to reiterate the notion that Le Mépris stands as a testament to the finite nature of love and relationships, while also being a melancholic appreciation of cinema’s golden age.