Contempt (1963): An Epic Subversion of Hollywood Desire

Contempt PosterWritten by Jean-Luc Godard based on the novel by Alberto Moravia

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Starring Michel Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance




An interesting companion piece to Godard‘s earlier Une Femme est Une Femme (1961), Contempt employs similar techniques to subvert and satirize the sweeping Hollywood action picture where the former set upon the comedy in a similar fashion. Contempt, like Une Femme est Une Femme, structures itself around a “love” triangle composed of two men and a woman; here, however, Godard extends his subversion of the tropes of the cinematic medium such that the subject of his film has become the creation of film, extending his meta-cinematic gesture so far as to cast Fritz Lang to play himself, adapting The Odyssey for American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot play a married couple, Paul and Camille, with Paul being the writer recruited by Prokosch to re-work the script Lang is working from. Prokosch, Paul, and Camille make up this film’s love triangle and the majority of the action of the film focuses on the deterioration of Paul and Camille’s marriage and how her contempt of Paul is seeded and pushes her toward Prokosch.

A Busted OdysseyThe film begins with the credits being narrated as Godard shows a camera moving along a dolly, filming another young woman on the street. The meta-cinematic quality of the film is established immediately visually as the narrator quotes André Bazin’s assertion that “The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires” and states that “Contempt is the story of that world” as the camera on screen is tilted to gaze directly into the unseen lens capturing this action: Godard’s intention to interrogate the cinema is made visually explicit by this gesture. Through the course of the film Godard subverts the conception of the cinema as a medium of escapism and complicates the ostensibly Romantic content of desire. Godard’s choice to structure the film as containing a film within the film resonates on several levels.

Implicit in Bazin’s quotation is the concept of the “gaze” which is in-itself rife with potentially misogynistic connotations; the typical gaze employed in cinema is the male gaze: male directors filming male stories from a male perspective and with a male audience in mind. Godard is conscious of this, the scene following the opening credits languishes the camera over the body of Bardot’s Camille, gliding over her bare back and posterior as she speaks to Paul and inquires about what parts of her body he admires. The Hollywood establishment is also made complicit in this misogynistic gaze later when Prokosch literally bends his assistant over to write a cheque for Paul on her back, enacting the commodification and objectification of women by the film industry in quite possibly one of the most gender-politically charged acts I’ve seen on screen. It should be stated that, despite this demonstrated awareness, Godard’s film itself easily fails the Bechdel Test and seems unable to supersede the paradigm in which it is constructed. As in Une Femme and Vivre Sa Vie, Godard is able to critique these issues but is unable to – or, at least, does not – offer any positive mode of advancement for his female character in a sense unpredicated on their relation to men.

Male predicated hierarchy

Godard utilizes the score of the film – a particularly ostentatious saccharine string arrangement –  in much the same way he utilized the score in Une Femme, if in a more moderated way. The score swells and dies out dramatically, often cued by acts as simple as someone crossing the room, loaning mock gravitas to whatever minute action accompanies the music; it is louder in the mix than the dialogue, in places obscuring character’s speaking to heighten its ability as an emotional catalyst above the narrative of the film. While less jarring than his soundtrack manipulations in Une Femme, these aural embellishments work more adequately to subvert the genre of filming Godard is critiquing here; the loud tonal shifts in Une Femme worked to generate humour and illuminate the soundtrack’s role in doing so and here the overwrought score works to the same end only instead of humour it draws attention to music’s ability to generate pathos. Godard also employs his standard Red, White, and, Blue colour scheme here, its political allegiance applicable either to the French or American agenda which works in line with his critique of the Hollywood adaptation aspect of the picture.

Separated InsideGodard demonstrates his uncanny sense for employing internal architectural space to explicate the separations of his characters, shooting characters together in one frame and one apartment but divided by the boundaries and walls between rooms, obviously analogous to the divisions inherent in the marriage between these people. Godard often foregrounds a statue of a young woman in shots such as this one, which Paul taps about the breasts and midsection at one point, stating “sounds the same all over”. Camille is often framed to mirror this statue, demonstrating how Camille feels objectified by Paul in their encounters with Prokosch, dangled out before him and left with him to a seemingly unaffected Paul.

Camille, having expressed her contempt, leaves Paul to go to Rome with Prokosch and the two are involved in a deadly accident after stopping to fuel his car along the way. The image of the Alpha Romeo, top down, crumpled between two tanks in an oil truck rings as poignantly today as a statement against the vulgar material consumer culture represented by Prokosch and his American ways as it did at the time. It’s difficult for me not to read this, given some knowledge of Godard’s political leanings, as a violent critique both of the American capitalist mentality as well as the means by which it powers Hollywood’s film-making machine. This gristly end a seeming karmic punishment for Prokosch’s meddling with the work of the auteurs and poets of the world.

Omega Romeo

The film closes with Lang on the set of the film, still at Prokosch’s villa, shooting the scene where Ulysses first catches sight of Ithaca upon his return. Lang states, when asked by Paul what he will do now, that he has to finish what he has started. Godard smoothly conflates his camera with the camera filming Lang’s adaptation by panning the two cameras together until the focus is only on the endless blue of the sea, Lang an ersatz Godard behind the camera, crying “silencio!” before the end title card is shown. The shot of Lang’s camera on a dolly recalls the opening and closes the film by return, filling a criteria possessed by the epic. Godard’s film takes on the characteristic of the epic and employs them to deconstruct the Hollywood process of adaptation, his own film adapted from a novel itself; the unfolding reflections of each act, nested into the next, refracts the stability of the film critically and reiteratively. From desire is born contempt and, moving beyond contempt, there is only the return to the endless expanse of blue ocean that is home remaining, liquid, always in motion.

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