The Misery of Le Mepris: Godard's Masterpiece of Cynicism
La Notte (1961)
Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni | Cast: Bernhard Wicki, Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, Monica Vitti | Writers: Ennio Flaiano (screenplay), Ennio Flaiano (story), Michelangelo Antonioni (screenplay), Michelangelo Antonioni (story), Tonino Guerra (screenplay), Tonino Guerra (story)
Vivre Sa Vie (1962)
Dir: Jean-Luc Godard | Cast: André S. Labarthe, anna karina, Guylaine Schlumberger, Sady Rebbot | Writers: Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Luc Godard (story), Marcel Sacotte (additional narrative), Marcel Sacotte (book)
Contempt: this is an emotion that permeates the surface narrative, background conversations and minor characters in Jean-Luc Godard’s aptly titled Le Mepris, as well as the production of the film itself. From the passionless hatred of Brigitte Bardot’s astoundingly beautiful Camille towards her husband Paul (played by Michel Piccoli) that drives yet stifles the majority of the movie, to the frustrated comments on the film industry itself, Godard here succeeds in depicting a state of mind as much as a story. Though the plot points may be artificially constructed, Godard has made a film that via unconventional formal techniques demands an awareness and a certain level of empathy from the audience of contempt as a damaging force. This emotion manifests both in and out of the established diegesis of Le Mepris, and results in a film interested in drawing viewers into the atmosphere of the emotion through an alluring exterior.
The plot of the film follows screenwriter Paul and his wife Camille in Italy, where he meets with producer Prokosch and director Fritz Lang to begin work on an adaptation of The Odyssey. Over the course of the film, his relationship with Camille becomes increasingly strained for unclear reasons, until she leaves him for Prokosch and is killed alongside the latter shortly after in a car accident. A running theme of miscommunication throughout the film between almost every character is potentially the most universal and unavoidable source of contempt. This is symbolised most effectively by the multilingualism of Le Mepris, with English, Italian, German and French all being spoken at different points, and only one relatively minor character (Francesca, who is not depicted as experiencing contempt) able to understand each of them. The result of this is that dialogue is repeated several times in several different languages, slowing the pace of the action onscreen and allowing the audience to process the dialogue line by line. While this can become frustrating, slowing the film to a crawl at times, the aesthetic intrigue of each language when juxtaposed with one another is certainly appealing – the words are enticingly tuneful when heard aloud, regardless of what is said.
Of course, the setting of Le Mepris contains aesthetic joys too, owing to Godard’s penchant for location shooting, in this case in Italy at the height of Summer. The natural light bouncing off the pared-down lines of rustic Roman buildings gives a sense of calm that, in most other movies, would likely be mirrored by the characters. The enormous scale of the mountains of Capri dwarves Bardot and Piccoli, who are stood at the level of the azure water, cascading around them in surroundings that suggest tranquillity, even paradise. But, as we know, these appearances cannot be trusted. The surprisingly subtle tonal whiplash generated by how the form and the content of the film contrast is what best generates the central feeling of cruelty – Godard lulls us in gently with visuals fit for a travel agency, then reminds us through dialogue of the absolute carelessness of people. One of the more arresting images is one in which Camille chooses to leave with Prokosch to the hotel, her longing yet hateful stare towards Paul as she stands on a speedboat with the wind running through her hair is almost undetectable when removed from the context of their prior argument. This is also reflected in the popularity of the film’s poster – the iconic vision of a semi-naked Bardot suggests a movie more about sex appeal than existential anguish.
Famously, the most obvious instances of contempt in the film derive from the central relationship between Camille and Paul, the former expressing disdain for the latter for reasons never made entirely clear by Godard. The audience are shown several instances of Paul’s behaviour beforehand that could have prompted her response: flirting with a woman also working on the film set, sending Camille off with the lecherous producer, and leaving her in their flat frequently with little to do. However, Camille doesn’t address any of these events directly, and even outright dismisses the idea that his other flirtations are the cause of her contempt for him. By viewing this aspect of the film through a feminist lens, the source of her feelings may become clearer. Though, rather ironically, put in due to demands from producers, the opening scene in which Camille asks for approval on parts of her body reflects this. The casting of Brigitte Bardot, an iconic sex symbol, initially imbues within Camille’s character the concept of female surfaces holding greater value than that of interiors – they exist only as beautiful, empty vessels to be filled by men. In an intimate slow zoom and pan from her feet to her shoulders, without clearly seeing her face, the frame is bathed in red that shifts to natural tones and then to blue, perhaps foreshadowing how their relationship will also turn cold and their love will be lost. Camille asks for acceptance from Paul on each of her body parts as the camera methodically tracks them, breaking her down into composite parts of a fractured whole that individually require male approval; one of the main visual draws of the film is systematically dismantled and examined, rather than straightforwardly admired.
The Emptiness of Misogyny
Though Camille herself asks for comments on her appearance in this scene, and their relationship is not necessarily presented negatively at this early point in the narrative, it does suggest that she is playing a submissive, typically feminine role to Paul’s male dominance. The fact that she is introduced in this sleek domestic interior reflects this, as does the fact that she is not shown outside of this kind of setting without a male companion, be it Prokosch or Paul. Speaking of the former, this kind of submission to male approval that Camille exhibits may explain her inexplicable pairing with the character at the end; though Prokosch is more of an outright misogynist, he lends her approval and attention, as well as style and riches, while Paul shows little genuine interest in her. Though arguably in a less overt way, this mirrors Antonioni’s La Notte, in which the female lead Lidia’s lack of attention from her husband leads her to a kind of existential malaise within a party of beautiful people, and almost to an affair. Even within Godard’s own filmography, Vivre sa vie features a similar story of a gorgeous woman’s sense of self revolving around male opinion, though in the case of Anna Karina as Nana in a more directly destructive way. As both films are categorised as European New Wave (La Notte being Italian), it could be said that female contempt caused by men is a running theme in this movement. To summarise, it seems that a significant amount of Camille’s contempt springs forth from the fact that she has been trained to find happiness in the gaze of men who want her on a surface level - when this is unfulfilled, she is inevitably unsatisfied.
At the risk of committing intentional fallacy, Le Mepris may be read as an expression on Godard’s part of his own discontented relationship with his then-wife Anna Karina, most evidently in the centrepiece scene at Camille and Paul’s apartment. In a moment where Camille is changing her clothes, she briefly dons a wig identical to that of Karina’s hair at the time, as well as a dress similar in silhouette and colour to her well known modern style. Once she puts this costume on, the camera mostly shoots her from behind, disguising Bardot’s famous face and making her more emblematic of Karina, whose iconic appearance arguably precedes her. The scene itself goes on for roughly a third of Le Mepris’ running time, and it takes place entirely within the couple’s small apartment, creating a sense of intimacy and claustrophobia as we are allowed entry into their most personal areas. Through unusually long takes and tracking shots that don’t obey the 180-degree rule, Godard clearly establishes the space and the couple’s uncomfortable proximity to one another during their aimless argument. Each character is framed separately from the other throughout the conversation, indicating a physical detachment that reflects their emotional struggles. Camille’s ambiguous, largely unexplained contempt also makes more sense through the lens of the director’s own marital strife, as Godard himself likely went through periods with Karina where he had unknowingly upset her and faced the consequences unsure of what he had done. This is suggested in an interview with Karina in which she revealed that their relationship was a ‘nightmare’. Although it is inevitably hard to determine whether Godard knew that this was the reason for her anger at the time, the idea that he was unsure of his faults and misunderstanding of her misery would autobiographically explain Camille’s abruptly cold demeanour towards her husband. For Godard, because of his apparently careless attitude to his own marriage, a lovely surface disguises unprovoked contempt within.
An aspect less related to the Camille-Paul plot is Prokosch, the most obvious character to directly cause division and contempt amongst others, whose greed and lack of artistic understanding stifles attempts by Paul and Fritz Lang to meaningfully adapt The Odyssey. He expresses a desire to simplify the Greek epic into a love story, suggesting that Lang removes the ambiguity in complexity in his direction, and Paul in his screenplay. This can be interpreted as Godard expressing a kind of meta-anger towards producers he had encountered in his own film career, particularly those who are American, and their tendency to push for simpler, more commercially viable films. For me, this adds to the dark humour of Le Mepris: Godard provides the wonderfully unusual aesthetic they desired, only to attack them with vitriol underneath. The crudeness of Prokosch’s character is perhaps best visually embodied by the blood red sports car he drives, an emblem of superficial style that tears violently across the screen in otherwise quiet, thoughtful moments. The vehicle’s audio-visual loudness serves as a distracting spectacle, the location of what is arguably the inciting incident in the disintegration of Paul and Camille’s relationship.
A Film of a Mood
In Le Mepris, Godard depicts a kind of inexplicable, existential dissatisfaction that cannot be neatly categorised, and that lies within the irresistible gleam of the art of filmmaking. Though I personally believe that Camille’s contempt springs from an institutional reliance on men, that the filmmakers are stifled by the restraints of adaptation and the nature of production, and that Godard himself felt this emotion in his personal life, it is unclear to what level each of these factors produce the overwhelming theme of the movie. In this way, it may even be attempting to create the emotion within the viewers themselves; after being lured in by a large budget and the promise of Bardot’s beauty, then slapped with the lack of a definitive answer, the audience may feel a frustration or emptiness not produced by other, more conventionally made films. So regardless of any one true source, Le Mepris is a film about invisible misery that depicts, embodies, and even induces it – and the tragic depths of this stunning film are still able to cut deep over half a century later.