Le Mepris Review
In 1963, the independent film producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph E.Levine hired Jean-Luc Godard to make a film at studios in Italy in widescreen and colour with an international cast. Accepting the assignment more for the financial reward than any great artistic interest, Godard proceeded to take the money and came up with Le Mepris, a brilliantly self-reflexive film about an independent film producer who makes a film in Italy in widescreen and colour with an international cast. At the time, it was largely dismissed by critics – the influential American critic Stanley Kauffman said it was devoid of any merit except for those people with a deep interest in Brigitte Bardot’s bottom – but it has stood the test of time very well and now looks, to this viewer at any rate, like one of Godard’s best films.
Le Mepris is set in Italy at the famous Cinecitta studios. Michel Piccoli, a fine French actor who became a familiar face in international co-productions of the period, plays Paul, a writer who has been hired by producer Jerry Prockosh (Palance) to rewrite the screenplay of a film based on Homer’s Odyssey. The film is being directed, somewhat reluctantly, by Fritz Lang, playing himself. Lang is exasperated by his producer’s constant interference and his insistence that the film be shot in Scope, a process which, according to Lang is only suitable for ‘snakes and funerals’. Nor is Lang too keen on the suggestion that what the film needs most is more mermaids. However, Paul has problems of his own. His wife, Camille (Bardot), is vaguely dissatisfied with her life and their relationship, a feeling which becomes increasingly focused as she realises just how weak-willed her husband is. When he decides to accept the project, she begins to feel contempt for him and that he is putting his career over the future of their marriage. Ironically, the story of Paul, Camille and Jerry reflects that of the Odyssey. Just as Ulysses returns from Troy to find Penelope receiving other suitors, Paul begins to wonder whether Camille is entirely faithful.
Le Mepris, usually anglicised as Contempt, was not the first film about the artistic and ethical compromises enforced by the American majors’ move away from Hollywood towards Europe. In 1962, Vincente Minnelli made the marvellous Two Weeks In Another Town, in which Kirk Douglas and Edward G.Robinson played producer and director, both involved in stormy relationships with women. Minnelli’s film is deeply nostalgic and hopelessly cynical about the state of the movie business, referring back specifically to his 1952 satire The Bad And The Beautiful. Some years later, the same theme was treated comically in Vittorio De Sica’s After The Fox in which Peter Sellers played a manic film director not unlike Godard, or at least the popular perception of him. But Le Mepris gains a special edge as a prime example of a director deliberately and maliciously biting the hand that feeds him. It’s not at all hard to see Ponti and Levine in the character of Jerry. Both men were known for their tough business deals and strong sense of his own artistic importance. No real producer was quite as appalling as Jerry, but the two men certainly made a lot of enemies and Godard probably regarded them as justifiable figures of fun.
The film is based on Alberto Moravia’s novel Il Disprezzo. Moravia’s writing also served as the source for another classic, The Conformist and one great piece of camp melodrama L’Ennui. Godard uses the story as an opportunity to explode in all directions and, in some respects, he breaks new ground in the sheer intensity of emotion that he creates. No Godard film before this was so moving in its account of people tearing each other to shreds and the music by Georges Delerue deliberately accentuates this strand of the narrative. So effective is Delerue’s music score that Martin Scorsese used it 30 years later as the score for the final scenes of Casino - another film about horribly fucked-up relationships in the middle of what should be paradise. Le Mepris is usually referred to as a comedy or savage satire, and it’s certainly both these things, but the overwhelming emotion it leaves me with is one of heartbreaking sadness. The score emphasises this of course, Delerue’s love theme being one of the most beautiful pieces of film music ever written, but it’s more than that. In the opening scenes, we see Paul and Camille in bed and despite Godard’s deliberate comments on Bardot as sexual commodity, there is a warmth and closeness which the couple never again achieve in the film. There’s a distinct sense that their marriage is on a downward curve that can’t be stopped and it gradually accelerates towards disaster. The first chink comes when Jerry offers Camille a lift to his house and she accepts. Paul, running to the house, sees them together and there’s a wordless sense of betrayal – from his viewpoint, that she has gone without him; from hers that he has allowed her to go. Godard’s use of looks and silences says everything and anyone who has ever been in love, or out of it, will recognise a great deal of what is portrayed here. Paul and Camille, having finally found the scab, pick away at it until the wound finally becomes exposed in a truly remarkable set-piece. This central scene, a thirty minute row between the couple set solely in their small apartment, is – in the opinion of this reviewer – the best thing that Godard ever put on film. In the space of half an hour, we see a relationship crack and then shatter and it’s riveting. It’s also very uncomfortable. Like Bergman, Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, Godard is a genius at getting inside the viewer and affecting his emotions on a level so deep that it makes the films very hard to watch. The argument starts with a little resentment which means nothing, gradually turns into something deeper and then, after Paul makes the mistake of hitting his wife, into a rift which can’t be healed. Perhaps only Bertolucci in Last Tango In Paris captures with quite the same painful accuracy the ways in which people who need each other manage to tear each other apart. It’s the knowledge that something beautiful has gone forever that makes the climax of the film unbearably moving.
Yet the film, sad as it is, works very well as a savage black comedy about filmmaking in a world where art and commerce seldom meet. Jack Palance was an inspired choice for the producer who, though superficially cultured with his talk about the history of Troy and the need to employ Lang, is basically a philistine whose sole impulse is to make money. He tries to show off his learning but keeps getting the quotations wrong and his sense of self-worth is at its apex – “I like Gods. I know how they feel”. He’s a cynic, both about his audience and, memorably, about working with artists – “When I hear the word culture,” he sighs, “I reach for my checkbook”. But he’s not merely a pseudo-intellectual thug, he’s a stylish and astute chancer who takes his chances with any woman who might come along – including, inevitably, Camille. Palance’s patented histrionic style is brilliantly used – he may be the ultimate incarnation of what the phrase ‘Hollywood Producer’ means. He also makes a great contrast with Fritz Lang, the German director being all buttoned-up sharply cut suits and exemplary manners. Lang is obviously enjoying playing himself and he does it so successfully that several of his lines in this film have been attributed to the real man. The setting – the decaying Cinecitta, a monument to an Italian film industry then being propped up by outside finance – is poignant and a potent reminder that European cinema has frequently been forced to take a begging bowl to Hollywood, largely because of the hegemony of American product in the marketplace. Indeed, the form of many scenes in the film is deliberately opposed to the American style - there are lengthy conversations and long takes in which, superficially, little seems to be happening. Yet, I think Godard is also paying tribute to the Hollywood films he loves. We see posters of Hatari! and Rio Bravo, Paul compares himself – quite accurately – to Dean Martin in Minnelli’s Some Came Running, and there are allusions to some of Lang’s American films, notably Rancho Notorious.
I think there is a fundamental dichotomy here in Godard’s mind. He obviously hated being in hock to an international production and being forced to work with the eclectic cast. But given these strictures, he shows complete mastery of them. The Scope photography is breathtakingly crisp and each frame is composed to bring out the maximum emotional impact. Godard uses some of his favourite devices – the manipulation of sound, jump cuts – and they seem to have even more effect when counterpointed with the more traditionally Scope effects, such as the gorgeous vistas of sea and sky and the lengthy tracking shots. I particularly love the moments at Jerry’s villa when both Paul and Camille remember – in the form of jump cuts – a series of images which suggest division and betrayal. He also clearly loves Bardot, fully living up to Ponti’s requirement that she should be featured as much as possible in the film. Her opening nude scene, lying on her front on the bed, is full of lingering views of her back, legs and buttocks, but Godard also makes things slightly removed by bathing her in first blue and later red light. He seems to be asserting directorial authority with these effects but they also have an emotional affect which is hard to pin down. It’s fascinating to learn that this scene was added late in production after the producers had complained that Bardot didn’t get a nude scene. Some have said that the scene isn’t erotic but I think it is, but in a slightly disturbing way. As I said earlier, Bardot is being objectified into a series of bodily parts in a way which seems to comment ironically on her treatment by the popular press and by other directors. Yet, in the middle of irony, there is emotion. Combined with Delereu’s music, there is an almost unbearable air of sadness and regret in these opening scenes which is even stronger on a second viewing. It’s no surprise that Godard loves film, but it is remarkable that he should prove to be such a genius with Scope and colour when his earlier films suggested that he was instinctively ranged against commercial considerations. However, it’s also notable that he insisted on putting Bardot into a brunette Jackie Kennedy wig which makes her look almost unrecognisable. He also films her sitting on the toilet which was a lot more shocking in 1963 than it is now, but is still quite surprising because we don’t expect to see a star quite so exposed. Again, this is something we wouldn't expect to see in an American film of the period. Godard seems, in many respects, to be anticipating the breakaway from moral censorship that was to happen in America during the next five years. I should also, on reflection, give credit to Brigitte Bardot. Not only is this her best film, it's her best performance. She gives herself to the role completely in a way which is completely unexpected.
Le Mepris is thrillingly cinematic. Has anyone who loves film ever failed to be moved by the sheer daring of that final shot, which completes the first and brings the film full-circle. Even little devices like having the credits spoken by a narrator add to the air of experimentation. Some people have complained that nothing happens, which is a reflection of their need for traditional narrative ‘excitements’ rather than a negative aspect of the film. A great deal happens but not always in a way which is immediately accessible. Framing, the position of the actors, the colours, the settings are all used for emotional visual effects in a way which is quite hard to get used to at first but soon becomes intoxicating. The film is about selling-out but it’s also about integrity. Paul sells out to the money-men, as does Lang. But Lang also has a genuine sense of honour in his determination to finish the film, no matter what he may think of it. Given that Lang had recently seen two cherished epic films butchered by American distributors into the appalling Journey To The Lost City, there’s a special resonance to his role here. Incidentally, the film opens with a quote: ""'The cinema,' Andre Bazin said, 'substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires.'"" The fact that this appears not to be a genuine quote by Bazin seems to me to be entirely appropriate.
It’s been said that the rest of Godard’s career was, to some extent, a reaction against his experiences on Le Mepris. If that’s true – and to some extent it is – then we are lucky that he made a film which is so beautiful and truthful about people. When one watches Weekend, for example, it’s intellectually and artistically dazzling but the viewer’s emotions are deliberately distanced. In Le Mepris, Godard takes us right inside a relationship and even deeper inside his own contradictory feelings about the film he’s making. That’s why I think it’s one of his best films.
Le Mepris has been previously released as a two-disc set by Criterion. Now, Momentum have released a region 2 version which sports quite a nice transfer but doesn't live up - either in terms of picture or content, to the Criterion edition.
The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1. That's the best news of all for everyone who has ever tried to watch a panned and scanned version. Few directors have ever used the Scope frame in such an extreme way as Godard and many scenes are played at the farthest extents of the screen. The transfer is a mixed bag. Some of the brightly sunlit exteriors are stunning with blindingly perfect colours and plenty of detail. The interiors aren't bad and exhibit a pleasing sharpness but there is some artefacting present and occasional grain. In places, there is some unsightly edge enhancement present as well. However, overall this isn't bad at all and is unlikely to seriously disappoint anyone approaching the film for the first time.
There are three soundtrack options. I will dismiss two straightaway. The English and German tracks are acceptable in terms of quality but are a waste of time. The only option to go for is the French track, not least because it sounds the most natural and has the best use of the music. In the English dub, Delerue's music - gorgeous as it is - is too loud and drowns out everything else. You will also find that the scenes in which Jerry is translated into French by an interpreter have an unintentionally comic effect. The French track is very good. It's crisp, well balanced and satisfying.
The Criterion disc contains a fantastic interview between Lang and Godard along with a commentary and some other extra features. The R2 Momentum disc only has three bonus features. The first is the theatrical trailer which demonstrates what a tough sell this must have been - indeed, it doesn't bother to pretend it's a mainstream film and goes straight for the arthouse fiends. "Paparazzi" appears to be an extract from an Italian TV magazine programme, directed by Jacques Rozier, and it has some fascinating, if sometimes obscurely presented, black and white footage from the making of the film. This is in fullscreen format. It runs for approximately 20 minutes. We also get a shorter film, also by Rozier, called "Bardot et Godard" which is also in fullscreen black and white. This is on much the same lines as the first film - don't expect an interview with the two - but is even more obscure with an incessant narration that is sometimes funny but more often annoying. Both features are in French with English subtitles.
The film is subtitled in English and several other languages, as are the extra features. There are 20 chapter stops.
Le Mepris is a wonderful film which deserves to be seen more than once, especially if the first viewing leaves you baffled. This DVD gives it an acceptable presentation but fans may want to fork out the extra money for the superior Criterion version.
Particular thanks to Noel Megahey for his assistance with this review.