The jokester gets his due

It's refreshing that a film festival, at which independent movies are celebrated for their individuality at the same time distributors are courted for their establishment relationships, offers Jean-Luc Godard's cynical Contempt, a dead-on dissection of the corrupting influence of "The Deal."

In the late '50s and early '60s, Godard was the darling of the French New Wave, a former film critic who put his money where his mouth was and began to make the kinds of films he thought Hollywood was incapable of doing. His debut effort, Breathless, was an idiosyncratic reworking of the gangster genre, and signaled the influence of post-modernism as well as acting as a harbinger for a new age in film--the fin de siecle of "mainstream" Hollywood movies. More than most of the New Wave directors--Truffaut, Malle, Resnais--Godard was obsessed with cinema as the story itself. He broke almost all the "rules" of filmmaking--respecting the "fourth wall," never letting the actors look directly into the camera, spinning a cohesive yarn--assembling his movies as he pleased. (A friend affectionately maintains that Godard's work is a catalogue of what not to do in the movies, and in so being, he made Quentin Tarantino's style of filmmaking possible.) No matter how stagy his films might sometimes appear, there's no denying that Godard does not merely film stage plays; the camera is an integral component to the mood he creates.

His revolutionary approach to movies is the thematic antithesis to the kind of splashy, hollow entertainments his producer, Joseph E. Levine, usually involved himself in. Levine was a legendary independent producer who rose from a Boston slum to distribute European art hits like Open City and The Bicycle Thief, and later to take a personal hand in making low-brow trash like Hercules and, later, higher-brow fare like The Lion in Winter and A Bridge Too Far. Just exactly how Levine came to produce Contempt (Le Mepris) in 1963 will probably remain a mystery; probably Levine simply heard the buzz about Godard and saw an opportunity to make a buck from a hot new property. But he did produce it, and Contempt, one of Godard's most unified films narratively speaking, was also his first made with Hollywood financing.

Like many newer films at this Festival, Contempt is about the moviemaking process: Paul (Michel Piccoli), a screenwriter, debates whether to do a script rewrite for a vulgar producer, Jeremiah Prokosh (Jack Palance), who is making an epic version of Homer's Odyssey. Paul doesn't believe in the project and is loath to take the job, but he needs the money. What Godard ends up with--and what, by reports, Levine didn't figure out--is the sweetest of ironic revenge at being seduced by the carrot of Hollywood "respectability": Contempt is about the crassness of the making of Contempt. The abrasive, base, snake-oil salesman Prokosh is a stand-in for Levine himself, and the puzzled Paul is Godard's alter ego, who takes Levine's money and then doesn't know how he can use it and live with himself.

The film would suffer as entertainment if all there was to it was an "in" joke, so Godard's solution is to painstakingly chronicle his disenfranchisement from his creative impulses. From the slow, languid tracking shot of Paul's pricey condominium--cold and monolithic, impersonal and materialistic, a house, not a home--to his desperate greed for money, the film reflects Godard's personal exploration of art vs. commerce. The use of a cheesy production of The Odyssey becomes his canny metaphor for a filmmaker's ultimate folly (and a witty jab at Levine's Hercules dreck): All that appeals to Prokosh is how much sex can be inserted into the classical saga, not the complexities of character, motivation, and plot that interest a "legitimate" screenwriter. Adding to Paul's woes is his conflict with his wife (Brigitte Bardot), who holds her husband in the same contempt Paul holds Prokosh. Throughout, endlessly repeated violin strains punctuate his descent.

There are many things to recommend Contempt, and Jack Palance's delicious portrayal of the adage-quoting showman is chief among them. His walleyed rendition of a dirty old man who has convinced himself he's the savior of misbegotten artists worldwide is a classic of hubris undiscovered. Bardot also acquits herself nicely; she was a much better actress than she's given credit for. But the reason we tolerate Godard is because of the director himself. Godard is a fool, a jokester, and Contempt is about as romantic and forthright as his nihilist sensibilities will permit. In it, you see a condensation of all the post-modern themes and paradoxes that would both elevate and plague his movies. Through his films, Godard has positioned himself on the edge of popular culture, somehow both above it and forever its slave. "God did not create man," one of the characters observes in Contempt, "man created gods." And film artists who tolerated mediocrity, Godard included, created Hollywood.


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