Le Mépris Review
Brigitte Bardot’s ass. If there’s one thing that sums up the curious relationship between Jean-Luc Godard and his first attempt at larger-scale commercial cinema in 1963 with Le Mépris (Contempt), it’s probably the famous derrière of the film’s celebrity starlette. Its appearance on the screen as the first scene in the film after Godard’s spoken opening credits, was entirely down to the wishes of the producers to exploit the film’s most marketable asset, the legendary sex-kitten of European cinema, demanding that she have more nude scenes. Godard was only to happy to provide these scenes, and their placement here, right up at the start of the film after footage that indicates that Le Mépris is a self-reflective look at cinema, as well as in other out-of-context glamour shots inserted elsewhere, smacks of provocation and defiance – Godard working to the orders of the film’s American producer, but doing it his own way, making it work for the deeper purposes that he had in mind for the film.
Ironically – or not at all ironically, since it’s firmly Godard’s intention – the same conflict between artistic endeavour and commercialism is played out early on in one scene of Le Mépris, where the American producer with delusions of God-like power, Mr Prokosch (Jack Palance), is furious at how the legendary film director Fritz Lang (Lang playing himself) has directed exploratory scenes for his version Homer’s The Odyssey during a screening of the film’s rushes. Lang has remained faithful to the words on the page of the script, but taken it upon himself to depict them according to his own personal and artistic interpretation that goes over the head of the crass producer, whose only concern is about whether more female nude shots can’t be included. Made as a film about the making of a film, one that mirrors to some extent what is actually going on behind the scenes, Le Mépris is more then than a film about filmmaking, it’s self-reflexively a film about its own making.
That’s a typically Godardian technique, the director, in the immediate period following the making of his 1963 film, becoming more a commentator and essayist on the making of cinema through cinema than in making films in the traditional manner. What is so marvellous about Le Mépris however, and what makes it stand out as completely original and unique among Godard’s wide, varied and hit-and-miss career is that it simultaneously pays tribute to the classic form of Hollywood cinema championed by Godard as a former film critic for Les Cahiers du Cinéma and a major influence on him as a director, while also leading the way towards what he saw as a necessary break away from the classical way of making films; away from the Hollywood studio system under the control of movie moguls, towards achieving a more honest form of individual artistic expression, one that reflected the lives of young people and spoke about modern issues that were of concern to them.
Le Mépris then is about the break-up of a relationship – the break between an old way of making films and a new way of making films that is expressed in the relationship between a French screenwriter, Paul (Michel Piccoli) and his beautiful wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot). Paul has been called on to rewrite Lang’s version of The Odyssey to suit the wishes of Prokosch, and is brought to Capri for the reshoots. He takes Camille with him, but already their relationship has become strained. Camille has seen another side to the man she has professed love for at the start of the film and gradually comes to despise him, while Paul, unable to see what he has done to earn such contempt starts to push her away from him. For a number of reasons, for his climbing into bed with commercial cinema – for pretending to despise it and rejecting it in favour of writing plays, but in reality being ambivalent towards it – she is evidently able to detect a subtle change in Paul and in his manner towards her. For this, and equally for other less easily defined reasons, Camille starts to drift away from her husband, their love replaced by a contempt that makes the inevitable break irrevocable, but sad and tragic at the same time.
The reasons for the collapse of their relationship are however non-specific, or at least unspoken – a slow accumulation of let-downs and betrayals. Godard would often in his films examine the incompatibility between men and women and their inability to find a common intellectual ground and a way of behaving with integrity, and often fail to find an adequate means of expressing this other than in the broadest of terms and in the creation of a false dichotomy. Here, adapting from a novel by the great Italian writer Alberto Moravia (‘Il Disprezzo’), and adapting specifically for the author’s ability to get beneath the characters and their relationship and at the complex emotions that lie between them, Godard expresses much more than an idea or a metaphor. Certainly drawing from his own personal marriage difficulties with his then wife Anna Karina, muse of his earlier films – who could be seen to be referenced in Bardot’s donning a black bobbed wig for the key scenes of the disintegration of the relationship that Godard and Coutard shoot so memorably in their modern apartment – Godard gets to the heart of the characters involved.
Hitting on profound emotional and behavioural truths, all of the other elements similarly come together in Le Mépris in a way that elevates it as one of Godard’s best films, and it may well even be his best. The timing of the making of Le Mépris in the history of filmmaking also contributes towards the film’s importance, capturing the decline of the Hollywood model in favour of the European method. It’s there in the overlap of using traditional filmmaking methods and experimentation with ‘Scope ratios and Technicolor film stock, in the placement and movements of the camera, in what is shown and in what is not shown. It also anticipates the emergence of a new generation, of a youth culture with unprecedented freedom and ability to make a complete break from the old ways that have become corrupted and no longer have meaning, and forge a new direction for themselves.
Godard would struggle to define the challenges that face this generation, “the generation of Marx and Coca-cola” in his subsequent films – sometimes pinning it down with inspired moments in the cross-pollination of imagery and references, at other times crudely defining it according to gender lines, but after Le Mépris never again do we see the whole subject handled with such perfection on multiple levels. Here Godard meaningfully and coherently draws on literature, art, mythology and music (it would be hard to imagine the film without Georges Delerue’s pervasive score), references modern cinema and popular culture and brings them together in a mutually-supportive way that allows each to draw new meaning from the other. It’s a testament to Godard’s restless experimentation that he isn’t reliant on traditional forms of expression and that he continues to move on after Le Mépris to create a more complex form of cinematic language, but rarely is the delicacy, the playfulness, the irreverence and the brilliance of Godard’s layering techniques and his use of metaphor more inspired than in summing it all up in a shot of Brigitte Bardot’s ass.
Le Mépris is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Optimum. The disc is BD50 and the film comes with a 1080/24p encode. Extra features are Standard Definition NTSC. The disc is playable All Region. There are numerous soundtrack and subtitle options, which are detailed in the sidebar and in the Optimum StudioCanal Collection news item. As noted in the news item, a selection of menus makes this edition compatible for international release.
Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard would experiment a lot with lighting and film stock, and that is just as much the case here with their use of Technicolor film stock and Cinemascope, so when “flaws” are detected in the imagery, they are merely the results of this experimentation and not flaws in the transfer. This accounts for the vividness of the colouration, the primary colours deliberately boosted by the filmmakers and artificially enhanced through the choice of props and painted objects in backgrounds. Some bowing or barrelling of the image can also be detected at the edges of the image due to the lenses used, and this seems even more enhanced when viewed in High Definition, the image seeming to warp strangely on camera pans where the bending of the image becomes more apparent. This is all part of the process and not a flaw in the transfer. Similarly, the Technicolor stock requires more lighting, which accounts for the variation of brightness levels and some light flaring as the filmmakers try to improvise ways to shoot film in a manner that would never have been done in a traditional film.
None of this is to make any excuse for the High Definition image presented in Optimum’s Blu-ray release – on the contrary, the experimentation yields extraordinary results and the resulting imagery looks incredible here. The film often looks terrific, particularly in the bright sun-drenched Capri exterior shots, but there’s also new depth and quality in the main interior sequences at the screening room and at Paul and Camille’s apartment. In terms of tone and colouration, it looks similar to the Criterion DVD release, but the contrast here is more natural and less boosted, showing finer and more natural definition and detail. Grain is handled exceptionally well and is rarely even visible, but in those shots where it is apparent on account of the processing, it is quite stable. Some minor jitter may be detected in pans, but there is no evidence of excessive DVNR processing.
Please note – all screenshots in this review come from the Criterion standard definition DVD, and although similar in tone and colouration (the Criterion release was prepared from elements provided by StudioCanal) are not completely representative of Optimum’s High Definition Blu-ray release.
There are a number of soundtrack options, but only one true soundtrack and that is the French DTS-HD Master Audio (although a variety of languages are spoken in the film). Soundtracks on Godard films are never the clearest, and there are patches here that sound a little rough, but this is entirely down to the condition and recording of the original elements. Georges Delerue’s score however is well-mixed and the overall clarity and tone of the track is probably as faithful as it can be to the original elements. The curious English dub is included, which makes for interesting listening, particularly in how it inventively re-scripts Giorgia Moll’s dialogue as Prokosch’s secretary and translator, but it’s never a viable alternative to the original language.
English and other subtitle options are provided and are optional – see sidebar for details. The English subtitles are in a fine white font and contained entirely within the 2.35:1 picture frame. The don’t stand-out too strongly from the image, particularly from brighter foregrounds, but are still quite legible at all times.
The selection of extra features could hardly more thorough and informative. The Colin MacCabe Introduction (5:31) sets the stall out for the film nicely, but there’s a more thorough examination of the film, seen in the context of the time it was made in Once upon a time there was...Contempt (52:28), the documentary drawing extensively from a new interview with Godard, the director viewing the film again and commentating on specific scenes, on his memories of making the film and his intentions. This alone would be more than anyone could reasonably hope for, but there is also a fine critical analysis of the film in Contempt… Tenderly (31:31), looking at the original script, considering the film’s references and the techniques employed by the director. The Dinosaur and the Baby (1.00:37) is the wonderful 1963 interview between Fritz Lang and Jean-Luc Godard for Cinéastes de notre temps, very much a two-way dialogue, a fascinating conversation between two legendary directors that considers many aspects of filmmaking, from history and technique to views on movies as art and entertainment. The Conversation with Fritz Lang (14:27) is snatched by German interviewer Peter Fleischmann between takes on the set of Le Mépris on Capri. The film’s original Trailer (2:31) is of the typical Godard variety, with a male and female voice-over listing the film’s attractions.
The disc comes with a BD-Live feature, which I wasn’t able to activate with a 1.0 profile. A 20-page Booklet includes a fine, clear analysis of the film by Ginette Vincendeau, considering the varied responses to the film on its release, how the international production came about and how it fits into the Godard oeuvre, attempting to unravel some of the film-within-a-film references and the role Bardot plays in them.
The only regrettable omissions here that are available on the fine Criterion 2-disc DVD release of the film are the two on-set making of documentaries by Jacques Rozier, but relevant parts of them pop up in excerpts of the Once upon a time there was...Contempt documentary feature.
Le Mépris may not be Jean-Luc Godard’s most ambitious or experimental film, but arriving at an important stage in his career, in his personal life, in the history of cinema and in the growing influence of a new youth culture, Godard seems to have a more authoritative command here over all the essential elements of his craft and the ability and insight to turn them into a remarkable layered piece of work that is complex yet thoroughly accessible. The film’s qualities are examined in detail in the fabulous selection of extra features and, presented in High Definition, the film looks every bit as striking and impressive as you could imagine.