Le mépris (1963)

CONTEMPT (Mépris, Le)

(director/writer: Jean-Luc Godard; screenwriters: novel A Ghost at Noon (Il Disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia; cinematographer: Raoul Coutard; editors: Agnès Guillemot/Lila Lakshmanan; music: Georges Delerue; cast: Brigitte Bardot (Camille Javal), Michel Piccoli (Paul Javal), Jack Palance (Jeremy Prokosch), Giorgia Moll (Francesca Vanini), Fritz Lang (Himself), Jean-Luc Godard (Lang’s assistant); Runtime: 102; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Carlo Ponti/Georges de Beauregard/Joseph E. Levine; The Criterion Collection; 1963-France/Italy-mostly in English, with some French, German and Italian)

“It’s talky and filled with broken rhythms and a running stream of thoughts, and is boldly told in exaggerated stylized terms.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Jean-Luc Godard’s (“Breathless”/”Vivre sa vie”) sixth feature is in Technicolor/CinemaScope and is an art film shot as a fable but released as a commercial film, that initially was a box office bomb and critically assailed but has since progressed to be recognized as a great film by most critics–some even calling it a masterpiece (I have some lingering doubts about going that far and reserve judgment about declaring it a masterpiece until I see it a few more times–having seen it only once before in its theater release in 1964). It’s a satire about a failing marriage between a struggling insecure French screenwriter/playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and his ex-typist gorgeous wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), who becomes increasingly disappointed with her hubby for his lack of integrity and displays nothing but contempt for him–something he never quite understands why, since she never spells it out to him. It’s based on Alberto Moravia’s novel A Ghost at Noon. Outside of many insider cinematic jokes and having vulgarian producer Joseph E. Levine (who is played by Jack Palance and unwittingly becomes used here as a symbol of exploitation films, as he’s known for his crass Italian made Hercules films) as the object of its “in” joke about how Godard held him in such a low-regard, the film among many other things is also about making an international film that merges as a low-brow commercial film with a high-brow arthouse film. Ultimately it questions the way an artist is introspective and examines his failings as both a person and an artist.

The film opens with a naked Brigitte Bardot lying stretched out on the bed and prodding her fully-dressed hubby in the many ways he loves her body parts as the camera slowly pans the icon beauty’s curvaceous body and firm behind (a scene Levine forced Godard to shoot). Crass American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) calls on Paul in Rome to rework the script of a film he has in production in Capri that he’s not satisfied with. It’s about the ancient Greek gods based on a work by Homer. It’s called “The Odyssey” and Fritz Lang (Himself) is the director. Lang displeases the producer when he weaves a tale that supports Homer’s views that the individuals are brooding to the gods about the modern world’s lack of culture (something that can no longer be grasped by the moderns), which the producer feels is too arty–he prefers more naked mermaids, as he intends on making a moneymaking blockbuster.

After Paul accepts the job offer, which will help pay the expenses on his white-walled apartment, he’s invited to Jeremy’s Rome villa for drinks and is told by him to take a taxi while Camille rides in front in his red Alfa-Romeo; this makes her incensed that her hubby is such a weakling to agree to this humiliation and from here-on they have a spat for most of the film which at times turns acerbic. She’s not upset about him selling out working for the Hollywood producer as she reasons they could use the dough, but can’t understand the way such an intelligent man lowers himself before such a crude man.

Giorgia Moll plays Francesca, the producer’s assistant/translator/mistress, who suffers at times from her boss’s abusive whims caused by his egomania, ignorance and lack of concern about others.

The film covers an afternoon in Rome and a morning in Capri for the quarreling mismatched couple, who are about to take separate paths. It’s talky and filled with broken rhythms and a running stream of thoughts, and is boldly told in exaggerated stylized terms (even the car crash at the end takes place away from the camera and never seems real) fitting a Godard project and not an international blockbuster as Levine desired. Palance as the producer says, “Whenever I hear the word culture, I bring out my checkbook.” Lang comments in “Nazi Germany that word brought out the pistol.”

As long as the dialogue was subversive and the lovers were made to feel uncomfortable, it seemed to work just fine. This exploratory film never fails to be fascinating even if it always remains incomplete, choppy and maddeningly brooding over modern man’s tragic decline.