Godard is a huge hole in my classic movie knowledge, so I knew I had to see some soon. Plus, Godard is the other name that comes up all the time as a major influence on my treasured De Palma, so I also knew that if I hope to maintain my snooty, know-it-all attitude about De Palma, I’d better see some Godard, stat. So Contempt it was. It then sat on my desk for three weeks while I worked up the time and energy to watch a serious movie.
We begin with a voice-over that give the credits verbally: “It’s based on a novel by… It stars Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli…” all the way to the end, as we see a camera tracking a woman walking down a street. The voice then quotes a film theorist who says “’The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires.’ Contempt is a story of that world.” Then we focus on a camera as it turns right into our camera. Right away the De Palma influence is apparent in this insistence that you are watching a MOVIE. Not a real story, as most films float on, but you must be aware that you are watching a movie that tells a story.
We then cut to a couple in bed, the woman [Brigitte Bardot as Camille] lying nude, asking her husband [Michel Piccoli as Paul] if he likes her toes, her ankles, her calves… all the way up to her face. They are bathed in an amber-orange light. He makes a move to have sex, but she pushes him off, and goes back to questioning. Suddenly the light in the room turns to a harsh white light as the eroticism of the scene is drained. The camera pans down to her feet and back up again, the light changing to blue as the tone once more becomes erotic.
We then meet a young Jack Palance as Jeremiah [Jerry] Prokosch, the stereotype of the arrogant studio head, as he tours an abandoned back lot and shoots his blowhard mouth off. An immediate symbol of his arrogance is the way he continues to speak English to the Italians, as though they’re just being silly by not understanding him. He has a translator in the form of the alluring Francesca, who seems to translate everything just the slightest bit wrong.
Jeremy has hired Fritz Lang to direct his adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. He insists that a German MUST direct it. Paul is being hired to write additional scenes for the script. They all go into a screening room and we see the film so far. It is nothing but shots of fake Greek statues with painted eyes as we hear a mournful, string-laden score. It is hilarious—a ridiculously overdone parody of a director’s personal vision that is way, WAYYY too artsy to be released. Jerry, after saying that he knows exactly how Gods feel, is furious. Fritz Lang—yes, the legendary director of Metropolis and M—says that the scenes are in the script—although obviously not the way they come off. Paul is given a check to rewrite it. He is desperate for money, by the way.
After the meeting, Jeremy meets Camille, and insists that she and Paul come by for a drink, and insists that Camille ride in the car with him. Paul can get a cab. Camille is obviously very uncomfortable with this—and it really does seem as though she is being whored out to Jeremy to secure the deal. They take off, and Paul walks. When he finally arrives, 30 minutes later, he tells them his cab got in an accident. Camille is pissed, but that doesn’t stop Paul from making a big pass at Justine, and grabbing her ass [while the light on the wall goes on and off]. Camille sees part of this, then insists that they leave RIGHT THEN. In here, one has noticed that this is unfolding during some extremely long unbroken takes.
SPOILERS > > >
They get home and contemplate the apartment they live in, which Paul hopes to finish with the money from the script rewrite. Now begins a 30-minute snipe-fest that is the centerpiece of the movie. Camille is obviously furious but won’t say why—we can only assume it’s because he came on to Francesca, but mostly because he essentially whored her out to Jerry, although we are to understand that nothing happened. She’s all bitchy and snippy, virtually ignoring him. He says “You’ve been acting weird all day. What’s wrong?” She says “Nothing. I knew you would ask that. I simply said that you’re an ass.” She then calls him an ass a few more time, until he finally slaps her. She gets all furious, walks off, then comes back a second later saying she still loves him. It goes on like this—for 30 minutes. She is all moody and petulant and giving snippy little answers and denying that anything is wrong, and he plays off the flirtation like it is nothing, and never mentions the matter of forcing her to go with Jerry. It goes on, he asks her if she wants to go to Capri with Jeremy, and she’s all like “I don’t know…” then suggests that he go alone, and by the end is agreeing to go. She pulls the covers out from under him and takes them out to the couch, where she says she’s going to sleep because she can’t sleep with the window open. He says they could just close the window, but she still refuses. At one point as they go back and forth—him asking her again why she’s stopped loving him, her again insisting that nothing is wrong—as the light between them switches off and on again. It escalates until finally she says that he’s right, she doesn’t love him, in fact, she despises him.
So they’re both being fairly repulsive, although reading a little bit on this movie it seems that this scene is sort of a couples Rorschach… on the commentary, the guy says that he feels for her because she comes and says she loves him [although to me these seem obviously insincere and a result of her realizing that she’s been quite harsh], and in the Criterion Collection essay the author says some feminist female friends consider the fault entirely his [surprise!]. This may be where my being gay causes me to have an area of blindness to the experience of most others, because to me Camille was obviously being quite, quite hostile and manipulative. That is to say, I had NO impression that she was acting in any way but immature and hateful, and her beauty is not enough to move me not to care. For example, after she takes the bed covers out from under him [“Move!” she shouts, only explaining later what she’s doing], and announces she’s sleeping in the other room, a question that doesn’t get asked but is valid is: What’s he supposed to use for covers?
I didn’t understand why one of them wouldn’t just LEAVE, go in the other room or whatever, but I guess that’s what the movie’s about. And while the filmmaking remains electrifying, I’m beginning to think I never want to sit through this movie again in my life.
So they go to this show where they are auditioning someone for the film. She is singing, but the music cuts out entirely when our characters start speaking. This is another way Godard reminds you that you are watching a movie. Outside afterward, Paul tells Camille "Don't come [to Capri] if you don't want to. I'm not forcing you," and she replies "It's not you who is forcing me. It's life." They go.
They are out on a boat, and Jerry asks Camille to return to the villa with him. They once again ask Paul, and he does it again! He repeatedly tells her "Go on." Then Paul and Lang have a discussion about The Odyssey that completely explains the film's themes and what's going on. They talk about how an undercurrent of The Odyssey is that "Ulysses uses the Trojan War as an excuse to get away from his wife." Then Lang says that Ulysses told his wife Penelope to accept the gifts offered by the suitors because he didn't see them as a serious threat, and that element of taking her for granted is what made her begin to despise him. This is when Paul starts to get a clue.
He returns to the villa to find Jerry kissing Camille. Paul then tells Jerry that he won't do the script, because he writes for the stage. He finds Camille sunbathing upstairs and tells her she can decide whether he does the script or not, but she says this will only result in him blaming her when he later regrets not doing it. He mentions that he thinks she's mad because of the two times he told her to go with Jerry, but he doesn't apologize, he just says it was no big deal. Regardless, she ain't havin' it, and ends up leaving for Rome with Jerry. The final shot is them shooting a view of Ulysses staring outward as he sees his homeland again.
< < < SPOILERS END
So I listened to the commentary, which was quite worthwhile and informative, telling one how to watch the film [which is what I like] and drawing out the themes, instead of sticking to celebrity gossip. Here he talks about Godard's place in the French New Wave, and the long tracking shots the film employs. He says that the producers pressured Godard to include Bardot nude scenes, so he did, but ones that were flat and devoid of sexual energy. He talks about how the palette of the film is red, white and blue [remember the colors changing during Paul and Camille's first conversation?], which echoes the national colors of both the French flag and the American flag, referring to the American producers. We find out that the character Francesca, the translator, was added later, and he points out that she always slightly mistranslates, pointing to the issues of translating novel into film, etc.
He says that things such as the statues in the film and the music going off in the theaters are ways in which Godard reminds you that you are watching a film, which the guy says shows the influence of Brecht, who was constantly doing things to bring you OUT of the play and remind you to keep a distance and look at it as a constructed form, that is, not as a story that is really happening. This again is one of the key things I think De Palma took from Godard [via Brecht] and ran with, because one of the comments I keep making on [most of] De Palma's work is that it is not as enjoyable to be watched as a compelling story with a plot and characters as it is as CONSTRUCTED FILM that has plot and characters as a way of illuminating itself as a film.
All that said, Christ was this tough to sit through. The filmmaking was amazing and really electrifying at times but UGH, these characters and their lack of understanding of themselves and their situation was so unbearably tedious. Especially the 30-minute mind-game-a-thon at the center of the film made me hate both characters and just want to get the hell out of here. It is alleviated a little bit toward the end when the connection between this film and The Odyssey becomes apparent, but it is mixed with so much additional relationship snark and avoidance it wasn't much of a relief.
I'm glad I saw it. I'm glad I never have to see it again.
Yes, you should. It's just one of those unpleasant things in life you have to go through on the way to maturity.