Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Walking down Manhattan’s West 57th Street one fateful afternoon in 1964, I was caught in a downpour and sought shelter under a theater marquee. After waiting 15 minutes for the rain to subside, I bought a ticket and went inside. The feature, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, was nearly over. Transfixed by the film’s ending, I sat through the next complete screening and, although I hardly knew it at the time, exited the theater with a vocation.
I had watched hundreds of movies before but never one so striking or bewildering. Contempt was, incomparably, the most beautiful color film I had ever seen. Every frame of Raoul Coutard’s cinematographyrigorous wide-screen compositions filled with bold splashes of primary hueswas as arresting as the slides I had studied in college art-history courses. What impressed me even more was that Contempt dealt with ideas rather than conventional storytelling. Its content puzzled me, posing a challenge I could not shuck. Each day for the next week, I returned to that theater to figure out what Godard was saying and, in the process, took the first unwitting steps toward becoming a movie reviewer.
Like most demanding films, Contempt opened to largely hostile reviews (Andrew Sarris was the notable exception) and quickly disappeared. It served as a lightning rod for philistine deprecation. Stanley Kauffman: “Those interested in Brigitte Bardot’s behindin Cinemascope and colorwill find ample rewards in Contempt….Godard has nothing to say here that could not have been done in about three minutes.” John Simon: “[I]t is portentous without having anything to say, improvisatory without imagination, full of esoteric references without relevance and in-group allusions without interest….Until we get an article from Miss Sontag proclaiming Contempt a near-masterpiece, we shall have to consider it trash.”
I don’t think Sontag ever got around to writing that essay, but here it comes, albeit a third of a century overdue.
Contempt’s production history is inextricably connected to its content. In the late ’50s, Boston movie exhibitor Joseph E. Levine made a killing by importing, dubbing, and domestically distributing pop movies (Godzilla, Hercules). Yearning for respectability, he began packaging and investing in films by De Sica (Two Women) and Fellini (8 1/2). Aware of the international success of Godard’s 1959 Breathless, he offered the iconoclastic New Wave filmmaker the opportunity to direct a million-dollar production: an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel A Ghost at Noon, with a cast headed by Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance. (The director’s request for Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra was ignored.) Godard, whose five previous features had been shot on minuscule budgets, returned the favor by creating an arcane, self-referential art movie about international co-production filmmaking featuring Palance as a crass American producer, a caricature of Levine. Enraged, Levine ordered Godard to add some Bardot nude scenes, which ran afoul of the New York censor board. The resulting notoriety failed to attract the public. For the past two decades, Contempt has been available only in faded pan-and-scan 16mm prints and videos that compromised Godard’s stylized color schemes and anamorphic compositions. The newly restored print is being promoted as the return of a cinematic gem but is, in truth, the exhumation of a virtually unseen classic.
Divided into three movements, Contempt opens with spoken creditsan homage to Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersonsaccompanying a shot of Coutard filming a tracking shot that ends with his camera’s lens photographing the viewer. Cut to a nude sequence featuring Camille (Bardot) and her screenwriter husband Paul (Michel Piccoli) in bed. Photographed through red and blue filters, Bardot’s exquisite body is presented sculpturally, linking her with the images of Greek statuary with red and blue painted eyes and lips that punctuate subsequent reels. (I suspect the color scheme also expresses the director’s contempt for his dictatorial American producer.) Beginning with her toes, Camille elicits Paul’s approval of every part of her anatomy. He ends by asserting, “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.”
This plenary adoration is shattered when Paul and Camille visit Cinecittà, a decaying Roman film studio run by tyrannical producer Jerry Prokosch (Palance), who approaches Paul to rewrite a screenplay based on the Odyssey for a low-budget spaghetti epic (reminiscent of Levine’s Hercules) to be directed by veteran filmmaker Fritz Lang (playing himself). A communist playwright all too willing to prostitute his talent for $10,000, Paul persuades his reluctant wife to drive home for drinks with Prokosch in the lecherous producer’s red sports car, promising to hail a cab and join them later. The look of enraged betrayal on Camille’s face when Paul arrives at Prokosch’s estateclearly, she feels she’s been used as a pawn to cement a deal with the mogulmarks a turning point in the couple’s hitherto cloudless union.
In the film’s virtuosic middle section, Paul and Camille return to their new, unfinished apartment, its white walls broken by Mondrianesque red and blue blocks of rectangular furniture. While they attend to everyday activitiesbathing, dressing, setting the tabletheir relationship disintegrates. Every effort Paul makes to ascertain what has triggered Camille’s emotional sea change further alienates her. (At one point, Bardot dons a black Louise Brooks wig similar to the hairpiece worn by Godard’s then-wife, actress Anna Karina, in My Life to Live. Reportedly, Godard’s marriage was coming apart during the shooting of Contempt, and this intense half-hour sequence apparently mirrors his anguish.) As his frustration builds, Paul derides his wife’s intelligence and class (“I should never have married a 28-year-old typist”) and even strikes her, thereby cementing their estrangement.
The setting then shifts to Prokosch’s Capri villa, an amphitheaterlike terra-cotta structure overlooking the sea, which serves as one of the locations for Lang’s film. Prokosch decides to put a perversely contemporary psychoanalytical spin on the Odyssey. In his revision, Ulysses loves Penelope but she doesn’t love him. Consequentially, he removes himself from her for as long as he can, and during his absence she is unfaithful to him. Paul embraces this crackpot notion, perceiving it as analogous to his own marital situation. Lang objects to the violation of Homer’s poem, arguing that classical art must be respected and accurately represented. By the time Paul realizes what he’s done to deserve Camille’s enmity, she is forever lost to him. In the final shot, the camera tracks past an actor awkwardly impersonating Ulysses and fixes on the ageless azure sea.
Although Godard is uncharacteristically respectful of Moravia’s novel, following the plot line and incorporating much of the dialogue, he uses the narrative as an opportunity to juxtapose ancient and modern values. Lang, one of the inventors of cinema, serves as spokesman for the classical belief in objective reality. Having escaped Hitler only to be victimized by Prokosch, he struggles valiantly but vainly to preserve his, and Homer’s, artistic integrity. As fierce and absolute as a Greek goddess, Camille empathizes with Lang’s plight. Both have entered into exploitative alliances from which there is no possibility of escaping unscathed.
Prokosch represents the modern psyche, regarding the world as a scrim upon which to project his selfish, subjective desires. A monster of infantile ego, he’s a progenitor of the petulant boy-men (Jon Peters, Mike Ovitz, and their cronies) crushing creative spirits in contemporary Hollywood. Spineless Paul vacillates between these perspectives, initially siding with Lang but, after Camille spurns him, capitulating to greed and Prokosch’s power.
Godard himself shares something of Paul’s irresolution. The great revolutionary of modern cinema, he struggles to escape the yoke of Levine’s artistic control yet yields to its constraints by making his most conventional moviea linear narrative with box-office stars. Ironically, Contempt may well be Godard’s most enduring achievement. His insidious subversion of its narrative framework creates an intriguing dialectical tension absent from his other fragmented, anything-goes movies, which, however innovative, now seem strangely dated. His formal experimentsthe arbitrary use of sound during an actress’s audition, the camera that slowly pans between Paul and Camille, separated by a table lamp, in the apartment sceneare more meaningful (and defiant) when contained within a disciplined structure.
Much of Contempt’s resonance is provided by its inspired cast. Bardot’s implacable gravitywith a glance, she expresses a depth of emotion that other actresses, armed with pages of dialogue, would have difficulty conveyinginvalidates her reputation as a decorative sex kitten. Palance brilliantly embodies Prokosch’s bullying hubris, brainlessly luxuriating in senseless self-indulgence. Piccoli’s hairy masculinity deceptively cloaks Paul’s helpless moral inconstancy. Lang is the soul of world-weary wisdom, a lucid voice of reason that Prokosch refuses to heed. (In an often-quoted line, he dismisses Cinemascope as suitable only for filming “snakes and funerals.”) Lovely Giorgia Moll, as Prokosch’s adoring, abused interpreter/mistress Francesca, is the medium through which the film’s polyglot ensemble communicates, musically reiterating and subtly coloring her translations of dialogue, including provocative quotations from Brecht, Hölderlin, Dante, and Corneille. Coutard’s magnificent cinematography, only slightly dimmed in the restored print, and Georges Delerue’s magisterial score enhance a film that, once seen, can never be forgotten.
One more bit of autobiography: A few months after I moved to Washington in September 1966 and began writing about movies for a now-defunct neighborhood shopper, I received a call from Levine’s distribution company inviting me to a press luncheon for his new production, The Graduate. I could not leave my job at the time the meal was scheduled, but Levine’s people insisted on sending a limo to take me to his hotel later that afternoon. I arrived to find the producer and the then-unknown Dustin Hoffman in a suite containing several tables littered with soiled dishes. Just as the interview was about to start, someone in an adjoining room beckoned Levine, announcingand I am not making this up”It’s Manny with the New York grosses.” Hoffman and Ia novice celebrity and a novice reporterexchanged apologies for our respective discomfort, then sat in strained silence until the producer returned.
I had not been invited to the press screening of The Graduate, so the interview was rather pointless. Levine briefly touted the merits of his new movie, then offered to entertain questions, which, obviously, I was unable to formulate. Instead, I inquired whether we could talk about another of his pictures, one of my favorites. “What do you want to know about 8 1/2?” he confidently beamed. At my mention of Contempt, his smile faded and his jaw tightened. “You liked that piece of shit?” he bellowed. “Jean-Luc Fuck! I could have made that frog cocksucker another Fellini. You like that picture? I’ll send you a print. Shit, I’ll send you all the prints. Jean-Luc Fuck,” he mused again, shaking his head in disgust and abruptly exiting the room, presumably for another update from Manny. I couldn’t help thinking of Prokosch, drunk on the nectar of his own omnipotence, vehemently proclaiming, “I like gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel.”CP