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The Aesthetic and Formal Challenges of Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Contempt’

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Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963) revolves around the fissures and overlaps between several artistic forms: Homer’s The Odyssey and its fictional filmic adaptation, Alberto Moravia’s 1954 source novel, and finally Contempt itself, incorporating all of the above. Rather than making gestures to enforce the suspension of disbelief, Godard’s film foregrounds its role in this complicated dialectical network; specifically, it announces itself immediately and loudly as an object of cinema. The film’s opening minutes feature a voice-over narrator reading the cast and crew credits, and a shot of a tracking shot of Francesca (Giorgia Moll). This opening resists the pact of fictional film, which strives for the importance of “building false reality.” Contempt declares itself outright as a combination of dialectical strategies wherein cinema is the central method (or, quite literally, the lens). The opening sequence concludes with a reading of André Bazin’s quote, “Cinema shows us a world that fits our desires.” In retrospect, it is the sentiment following this quote that offers the most complicated insight into the film’s design: “Contempt is the story of that world,” says the narrator. Following this statement, the camera operator following Francesca points his camera toward the audience. After staging this interaction between viewer and film, Contempt cuts to a red-lit shot of Camille (Brigitte Bardot)’s naked body.

At first glance, it seems as if Contempt is offering an ambivalent critique of “the desire” imbedded in the (heterosexual male) cinematic gaze, but as it progresses, it becomes clear that the film is undergoing a much more complex process than initially appears. As Camille playfully asks her lover Paul (Michel Piccoli) if he likes various parts of her body, the camera roves up and down her bare legs, buttocks and back. The lighting shifts color, from red to white to blue, possibly gesturing to a broader social critique (mirroring as it does the French flag’s colors). Prefaced as it is by the self-acknowledge falsity described above, this visually beautiful scene carries the weight of critical import. Why is our gaze being directed in such an overtly blunt manner? To what end?

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Contempt takes its time to reveal larger strategies — first, to ambivalently dismantle the fictive idea of cinema as “a world that fits our desires,” and second, to lay bare the dialectical processes at work in its various layers of translation/adaptation. The former project plays out largely through the erosive interactions between Camille and Pau. In one famously extended sequence, the lovers roam disconnected through their picturesque flat, exchanging banalities and coded aggression. Contempt portrays their mutual infidelity with a kind of distant melancholy: while the film does cave into a broadly romantic notion of cinema, and even of love, it also undercuts those ideas with its brutal observations. Indeed, I have stressed the word ambivalent here in order to highlight the film’s uniquely conflicted strategies. More than any other work of cinema I can remember, it absolutely exudes passion for its medium. Not only is this evident in its formal exuberance and unapologetic beauty, but also in its litany of fond references (visually and textually, the film alludes to Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), Rio Bravo (1959), Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) and others). At the same time, though, there persists throughout a sense of suspicion regarding cinematic form; by 2017, we are quite acclimatized to this kind of challenging attitude from Godard, with 2014’s wildly difficult Adieu au Langage thriving almost purely on its own self-inquiry.

In Contempt, cinematic self-evaluation roots itself in the slippages between origins or loci of meaning. Godard’s own authorship is announced in the introduction, and protagonist Paul begins to transform explicitly into Ulysses, the hero of his latest writing project. Worth noting here, too, is the fact that parallels have been frequently drawn between the actual conditions of Contempt’s production, and those depicted onscreen. Cinema is the container for its various dialectical modes, but can cinema be trusted? As a shot of Odyssey scribe Homer fills the screen, director Fritz Lang (playing himself), says “The gods have not created man; man has created gods.” This speaks to the correspondence between Paul and Ulysses, yes, but also more broadly to author and text, director and film. Contempt foregrounds this relation by attributing the quote to filmmaker Fritz Lang — a fictional rendition of a real-life director, being directed by the invisible omniscience of Godard. If, in fact, the production conditions of Contempt did mirror Godard’s experiences, one wonders whether an original locus of “control” or “authorship” might be accurately traced at all.

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Contempt is a daunting and formally labyrinthine work, calling its own fallibility to question even as it submits completely to the romance of cinema. It plays out as a series of intertwining and even inseparable dialectal modes, as a testament to the complicated relationship between source and adaptation. But it also plays beautifully as an aesthetic object: delicate balances of humor and melancholy, precise mise en scène and exquisitely captured locales. After a recent rewatch, I find myself torn between absorbing its gorgeous textures and committing to its theoretical rigour. I suspect that this tension is precisely what Godard is after.

Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is a lifelong cinema enthusiast pursuing his M.A. in English literature at the University of Calgary. His fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including DarkFuse, Double Feature Magazine, Turn to Ash and the anthology Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups). He has also written numerous articles for Bright Lights Film Journal. You can contact him through his website, mikethornwrites.com.

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