Contempt (1963)

Looking through Jean-Luc Godard’s work, there’s generally a division between his more romantic and playful films, titles like Breathless, Band of Outsiders and A Woman is a Woman, and his serious and ponderous films, such as Alphaville and Film Socialisme. Contempt exists in a realm between the two, oscillating back and forth between a romance story and an esoteric story about making a film.

The romance is the last death throes of a marriage as Camille Javal (Bridgette Bardot) decides she no longer loves her husband Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli). It’s similar in conflict to A Woman is a Woman, but taken to a more desperate ends as the very fabric of their relationship begins to unwind.

Framing this entire relationship is the attempt to film a version of The Odyssey. The film is being directed by Fritz Lang, who amusingly shrugs off the constant complaints of American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). As the creative differences in making the film emerge, Godard attempts to construct a conversation about the relationship between gods and men.

While the two stories do overlap in a direct way, there’s starkly different in style. The long, drawn-out relationship scenes pad out the middle while this beginning and ending of the movie consists of montages and intellectual ponderings. The film is never able to connect the two, either in terms of style or content. The film stretches for a connection between Odysseus and Paul, but it’s a tenuous connection at best.

The finest moment of the film, a brief glimmer of synthesis between the two stories, is when the couple in voiceover muse over the nature of their relationship. It plays over a montage where Paul is shown as still having an intimate desire for his wife but one where Camille only sees herself growing distant. It’s a brief glimmer, a scene that could help reframe Contempt and get it back on track, but it quickly subsides back into the drawn out, placid story of the relationship.

It’s a shame because Contempt does have a strong visual style to it. The use of filters and the stark, brazen colors on the set design give the film an abrasive, flamboyant feel that fits at least the moviemaking story in the film. There are also some fantastic locales and arresting visits shot on location in Italy.

Contempt is the result of Godard exploring where he wants to go in the future. A lot of his styles, both past and future, are captured in the film and he’s not sure which one to stick with. Both sections of the film work, but they’re never cohesive or part of a satisfying whole, just two styles Godard has done much, much better before.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing