The odyssey

It's hard for anyone under, say, 35 to understand the impact that the so-called French New Wave directors in general--and Jean-Luc Godard in particular--had on cinemaphiles (and on the art of film itself) when their films suddenly burst upon American art-house screens in the early '60s. There was almost nothing resembling the current "indie" movie scene back then. American film was split between two diametrically distant camps: On the West Coast, Hollywood was the 800-pound gorilla that could (and did) sit wherever it wanted; in New York and a few other Eastern cities, a tiny opposition of "underground" filmmakers provided a more self-conscious, intellectual alternative that may as well have been a different art form from a different planet.

There was very little in between--Kubrick's first few films, Cassavetes' Shadows, a few other ultra-low-budget features that received almost no distribution. But the double whammy of Godard's Breathless and Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player inspired in young cineastes such as Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Jim McBride the possibility of aesthetically adventurous features that could reach a broader audience.

The closest thing to that sort of excitement in recent years is the massive popular reaction to Quentin Tarantino's work; I'm a fan, but I suspect that Tarantino himself would agree that there is something bizarre about his minuscule output--two films over five years--generating an analogous admiration to that accorded the young Godard.

Consider the fact that, in his first eight years as a director, Godard made something like 15 features and a number of short segments of anthology films--and that this prodigious output encompassed a broad range of genres, styles, and tones. It was as though his brain was so intoxicated with the possibilities of cinema that he couldn't get his ideas onto the screen fast enough.

Smack dab in the middle of this burst of activity came 1963's Contempt (Le Mepris), which has been reissued in a brand-new print. Contempt has always been an odd stepchild in Godard's filmography for the simple, ironic reason that it's the most conventional. Which means, quite simply, it was a big-budget (by Godard standards) Technicolor/wide-screen production with a major international star (Brigitte Bardot) and an American producer (Joseph E. Levine, then best known as the sleazy importer/dubber of the Steve Reeves Hercules movies).

The film was indifferently received at the time: To American critics, it had a whiff of selling out about it. Even some more recent assessments verge on the inept. Whoever wrote the blurb in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide appears not to have seen the movie, mangling the facts and describing this inarguably tragic melodrama as "funny"; the description seems wholly based on behind-the-scenes gossip about the shoot. Yet on the whole, the years have been kind to Contempt, maybe too kind: Colin McCabe's recent appraisal in Sight and Sound--"the greatest work of art produced in postwar Europe"--is more than a little excessive.

Loosely based on Alberto Moravia's novel A Ghost at Noon, the film centers on Paul Javel (Michel Piccoli), a struggling screenwriter married to Camille (Bardot), his gorgeous ex-typist. They appear to be deliriously in love, but one day, seemingly without warning, a thoughtless action makes Camille lose all affection and respect for her husband.

She has come to meet him at the movie studio, where he has just agreed to rewrite the script for a version of the Odyssey being directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself). Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), the film's crude, infantile producer, invites them to dinner at his villa, suggesting that Paul take a cab while he drives Camille in his two-seat sports car.

As soon as Paul acquiesces, Camille becomes profoundly disagreeable. When fate causes him a further delay, in the form of a fender-bender--a degraded modern equivalent of the obstacles the gods used to keep Odysseus from Penelope--she is even testier. These little missteps are to her a form of Paul's pimping her to his powerful new employer. Whether she is right or not, and whether she later decides that she is, is irrelevant: The damage has been done. She sees Paul in a new light; now that she experienced falling out of love with him, no argument or apology will restore her devotion.

Even this brief a synopsis is fraught with possible misinterpretation: The film suggests several readings of the situation, without ever giving us the comfort of a clearly "correct answer." As in life, one makes assumptions about people's motivations at one's own risk.

While most of the movie unfolds in a fairly straightforward form, Godard still can't resist playing around a little. The movie is full of long tracking shots: The very opening, set at the studio, is an almost dead-still take of Godard's cinematographer Raoul Coutard shooting a tracking shot. What he is shooting is not the film within the film, but Contempt itself; the effect is that of a curtain rising on the action.

It immediately gives way to a sequence of Paul and Camille in bed, with the camera lovingly examining the length of Bardot's body, particularly her then-iconic tush. Godard was vehemently opposed to this sequence, which he was forced to shoot by the producers; he responded by tinting it in dark, obscuring colors.

In Contempt, the whole backdrop is of an ugly American with money lecturing master director Lang about the real meaning of the Odyssey; it's turf that resembles, albeit in a more serious mode, the drubbing Godard would hand Cannon Films two decades later in King Lear. And in the end, much of the movie is thus self-reflexive--perhaps more so than Godard could have intended while on the set.

Contempt (Le Mepris).
Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard; based on the novel Il Disprezzo (A Ghost at Noon) by Alberto Moravia. Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll, and Godard. Opens Friday.


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