Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Jean-Luc Godard's elegy for Penelope: Le Mépris (Contempt)

Le Mépris (Contempt) dir. by Jean-Luc Godard 1963

Godard's Contempt is nearly as old as I am. But, where has this film been all my life? I watched it last night and don't plan very soon to stop thinking about it. It's a game-changer for married adults. And it's an extremely provocative treatment of Penelope (and, oh yes, Odysseus). This highly intriguing film is clearly about film-making. The opening credits make that clear by deconstructing the process of filming a tracking shot, while a disembodied voice reads audibly the details of director, producer, cinematographer, etc. And this dialogue with film-making recurs all throughout the film.

Blonde-bombshell Bridget Bardot plays a tragically
Penelopean figure in Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt.
But Contempt is also about deeply human relationships. In the guise of an Odyssey adaptation, Godard tells the tragically tender failure of a marriage. The skeletal narrative treats an international production of the filming of an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey.  An insufferably boorish American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) has tired of the German director’s  (Fritz Lang, ipse) waning attempts to construct a film a deeply hormonal American simpleton male can understand. Accordingly, the producer has summoned a new French screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) to the ragged backlot of Cinecittà for a consult. The screenwriter’s wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot) is clearly a Penlope, but here she is drawn away from her failing Odysseus by the questionable attractions of the American in a red Alfa Romeo droptop. Every time the actor-qua-Odysseus appears on the set, Paul's progressive failure as husband becomes increasingly apparent. The film-within-a-film is an artsy Odyssey, but it is structured enough and sufficiently recurrent to provide the subtext and framework upon which the couple’s agonizing failure can be hung and dried.  One critic calls Contempt “Godard’s richest study of human relations, and a film very much about a tortured kind of movie love.”
         Prokosch promotes from the start his thesis that Penelope is unfaithful to Odysseus. Lang and Paul see the fault as Odysseus’ and his specifically criticize his apparent eagerness to stay away for 10 years beyond what he could have achieved. 
         Bardot in 1963 was at the height of her sex-appeal. Godard was pressured by his actual producers to prostitute her famous physique and her attendant attitude made legendary in Et Dieu ... créa la femme (And God Created Woman) (1956) and other films. While Godard's camera features
Bardot never assumes this pose in
the Godard film. The poster-maker
exploits the star's physique in ways
the film-maker overtly avoids.
Bardot's famous backside in several scenes from beginning to end in Contempt, the sexuality of the starlet actually declines precipitously through the narrative. The patriotically red-white-and-blue filtered nude-scene at the film's outset is the rare moment of tenderness between Camille and Paul, the chaste height from which the couple's relationship plummets. Paul falls out of love with his sizzling wife as the film progresses. She vice-versa. So, when late in the film Camille plunges (off-camera) into the spectacular waters off Capri and swims (unclothed and on-camera) away from Paul and out to sea, it is the last time they are seen together in one shot;  they could not have grown farther apart. 
        The American producer — acting a part that has autobiographical significance for Godard's own marital mishaps — has come between Camille and Paul in a way that Homer's Odysseus never really allowed.
            I assign the film to OGCMA-Penelope rather than to the perhaps more obvious choice of "Odysseus-Return of Odysseus". The film is a loving elegy to Penelope. Casting the hottest French cinematic commodity (Bardot) in the female lead indicates Godard's belief in the importance of the role. Piccoli did acquire considerable fame for his part. But the critical performance is Bardot's Camille. She is the one who responds to the failures of her capable husband; she is the one who must consider the advances of Prokosch. While caught between her Odysseus' negligence and the primitive testosteronic advances of her Suitor, Camille is willing to sublimate her inherent Bardotesque sexuality (her hyper-famous blonde mane) beneath a brunette bobbed wig. Paul's failure to see this cry of submissiveness leads to the Camille's open rejection of his later feeble attempts to recover her for his pride's sake. 
    Godard's Contempt belongs among the most provocative Penelope receptions we'll see.


The Criterion Collection has done a tremendous service by overdubbing the film (reissued 2002 as Criterion Collection #171) with a provocative audio commentary by Robert Stam.

A fine essay by Phillip Lopate, “Totally, Tenderly, Tragically” (copyright 1998, available excerpted on the Criterion’s website) is very useful  (click here). — He calls Palance’s Prokosch “vilely virile”.

Joanna Paul, "Homer and Cinema: translation and adaptation in Le Mépris," in A. Lianeri and V. Zajko, edd., Translation and the Classic: identity as change in the history of culture, Classical Presences (OUP 2008), 148 - 65.

Colin MacCabe and Laura Mulvey, edd., Godard’s Contempt: essays from the London Consortium, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Brief contextualization in the short overview of “The French New Wave (1959 – 1964)” in Bordwell & Thompson’s Film Art: an introduction 475 – 77.

Godard's film is itself an adaptation of the 1954 novel by Alberto Moravia originally entitled Il Disprezzo which was variously translated: A Ghost at Noon, trans. Angus Davidson (London: Secker & Warburg, 1954) and Contempt (New York: New York Review of Books, 1999). 
— characters in the Moravia novel are named Riccardo and Emilia Molteni, Rheingold (=Lang), and Battista (=Prokosch).

Valuable for its contributions by Godard himself:
Histoire(s) du cinéma — DVD St. Charles, Ill.: Olive Films, 2011, 2 videodiscs (266 min.): sd., col.; 4 3/4 in., French DVD 7246 pt.1 Floor 4–S, HBLL Media Center Desk —Description
"An extraordinary look at motion pictures as seen through the eyes of the reknowned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who transformed the face of cinema with his prolific, influential, and revolutionary body of work, which includes such classics as Breathless, Weekend, and Contempt. Consisting of eight episodes made over a period of ten years, the series covers a wide range of topics, from the birth of cinema to Italian neo-realism to Hollywood and beyond."

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