If Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, and Fritz Lang aren’t enough of a lure, how about all those beautiful empty spaces?
Few observers at the time (1963) were prepared for Godard, the baddest of the nouvelle vague’s bad boys, to make a color, Cinemascope movie starring Jack Palance. Wasn’t this the auteur who helped resuscitate the moldering corpse of Le Cinema with improvised writing and acting, location shooting, black-and-white cinematography, and agitprop? Fans may have assumed “contempt” would be their own reaction to a Godard film that showed every earmark of a trashy Hollywood-style movie. And with a payroll that included schlockmeister producers Joe Levine and Carlo Ponti, brainless sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, and the indisputably “ugly American” Jack Palance, Contempt certainly qualified. Even the source material, Alberto Moravia’s novel Il Disprezzo, was suspect; Godard himself dismissed it as “a nice, vulgar read for a train journey.” Rumors that the director had lobbied for Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in the lead roles must have further jangled the nerves of cineastes.
As it turned out, there was little cause for alarm and much reason to celebrate. Contempt, re-released through the efforts of Martin Scorsese in a restored ‘scope print, is as masterfully modern as Breathless or Alphaville. Godard takes the raw materials of a Hollywood melodrama – a conflicted, co-opted writer; a despotic movie producer; a gorgeous, faithless wife – and infuses them with his own subversive sensibility. The tin gods he conjures from these elements are systematically destroyed, leaving only a series of beautiful empty spaces.
Contempt follows the rise and fall of Paul Pavel (Michel Piccoli), a French playwright living in Rome. Pavel is toying with the idea of totally selling out by writing a script based on a cheesy update of Homer’s Odyssey. (He’s already succumbed once with his screenplay for a “hit” called Toto Against Hercules.) Scummy producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) is only too happy to play Mephistopheles to Pavel’s Faust. Prokosch, reportedly Godard’s disgusted reinvention of Joe Levine, is smug and tyrannical, throwing violent tantrums, degrading his secretary by using her back as a desk, and pompously declaiming his love for Art while saying things like, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my checkbook.” He hires Fritz Lang (played by the master himself) to direct this new Odyssey, but the two argue endlessly over the concept. While Lang represents in some sense the classical world that’s the subject of the film, Prokosch embodies the crassest elements of commerce. Lang has the cameraman shoot pictures of classical Greek statues, while Prokosch drools over footage of “mermaids” – in reality trashy starlets splashing naked in a grotto. In a typical Godardian moment, Lang invokes the ethos of Greek tragedy, “Here is the fight of the individual against circumstances . . . the eternal problem of the ancient Greeks,” a statement Prokosch waves away with a disgusted “Oh please!”
If Lang is willing to suffer the producer’s intrusions, Pavel is a much harder sell. Prokosch assumes his charisma will be enough to entice the former detective-story writer, but the equation is complicated by the presence of Pavel’s beautiful, bored wife Camille (Bardot). Camille’s favors appear to be part of the price Prokosch will exact from Pavel in exchange for the $10,000 salary and further inroads into “show biz.” The presence of Camille/Bardot as a gorgeous empty vessel is established early. In a celebrated scene, she catalogs her own body parts in the form of questions for Pavel: “Do you like my breasts . . . my ankles . . . my knees . . . my thighs?” If Prokosch is Godard’s revenge against Joe Levine, the dehumanization of Bardot looks like the director’s attempt to wreck her image as a popular sex goddess. Levine apparently complained when he saw the first cut of the film because she had no nude scenes; Godard replied with this jarring insert, shot with crude blue and red color filters, of a naked Bardot ruthlessly objectifying herself. The film thus folds in on itself, with Godard struggling against the demands of his Philistine producer just as Lang and Pavel do in the film.
Bardot’s bizarre nude scene also sets the stage for the torturous unraveling of her character’s relationship with Pavel. Godard opens Contempt with scenes in the backlot of famed Rome studio Cinecitta, and ends it on the Isle of Capri, both locations the scene of the ongoing battle of wills among Pavel, Prokosch, Camille, and Lang. But the heart of the film, and its literal center, is an extended passage that limns in wrenching detail the breakdown of communication between Pavel and Camille. Raoul Coutard’s prowling camera tracks their movements through their apartment; with its alcoves, sudden walls, and high ceilings, it takes on the visage of a psychic space. The two characters play a cat-and-mouse game reminiscent of Beckett, or perhaps Edward Albee, with ever-escalating levels of contention, brief resolution, and finally bitter resignation, as Camille denounces Pavel: “Why should I lie? I don’t love you anymore!” Godard’s refusal to clarify the motive behind their incessant, sometimes violent bickering makes the rupture all the more mysterious and disturbing. The film hints that Camille is disgusted because she believes Pavel has somehow “offered” her to Prokosch, but this remains only a tantalizing possibility. Her eventual departure with Prokosch puts her in the company of other Godard women who betray their men, but Camille stands out among them in this virtuoso sequence.
The film’s final location is the Isle of Capri, more specifically a spectacular structure called Villa Malaparte that’s built like a Mayan temple on a rocky outcropping. Like Pavel’s apartment, this is another complex physical space the camera elegantly transforms into a psychic zone where the characters can play out their hopeless relationships. While the movie-within-a-movie limps along, with location shooting continuing in the background, a kind of climax of the film’s frayed relationships – which comprise an “odyssey” in themselves – occurs. Pavel observes Camille’s infidelity when he peers over a rooftop into the edge of a window at Prokosch and his wife embracing. Like the detective characters he wrote about before he sold out, Pavel carries a gun, but it’s somehow understood that he won’t use it. Such old-school melodramatics no longer apply in the barren modern spaces of these characters’ world. As the film drifts toward closure, Prokosch takes Camille as his due, Pavel resigns himself to his fate, and Camille vanishes without apology. Her early sarcastic dismissal of The Odyssey – “yes . . . the story about the guy who’s always traveling” – continues to resonate through the film’s sudden, apocalyptic ending. The continuity of the past, represented by Homer’s classic and Lang’s attempts to bridge past and present, has no place in these characters’ random lives, which endure or end seemingly without reason. Like Odysseus, they too are “always traveling”; unlike him, they never make it home.