I think [cinema can be an artistic profession]. It consists of so much compromise that in the end it has to lead to purity
Contempt is one of Jean-Luc Godard’s most paradoxical films. This is quite an achievement, for his oeuvre is known for its variation, difficulty and abandon: he’s made Marxist political films, experimental films, adaptations of great works such as King Lear and, of course, films of the French New Wave. For some filmmakers – the Spielbergs and Wilders of the cinema – this description might suggest failure; that their ideas and plans for a film went unrealised. But Godard would embrace the word paradoxical. His films, like Our Music, Goodbye to Language and Breathless, are full of contradiction, counterpoint and interplay. Just look at his experimental, Dantean-structured Our Music: the final part, titled ‘Paradise’, presents beaches and grasslands occupied by armed American Marines.
Contempt might just be the most mainstream of his films. As A.O Scott has noted, “Godard had a pretty big budget, his movie was based on a novel Alberto Moravia, one of the best internationally respected novelists of the day, and he had a cast of movie stars [Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli and Jack Pallance].” It also features a relatively – for Godard, anyway – linear narrative, and deals straightforwardly with issues of marriage, love and emotional aggrievement. It made the most money at the box office of any Godard film, a fact that would’ve pleased producers Carlo Ponti, Joseph E. Levine and Georges de Beauregard. However, in Contempt, Godard uses art to attack its greatest adversary – commerce.
Does the mainstream sensibility of Contempt negate its ideological stance? The answer might’ve been yes for a lesser film, but Contempt is so richly layered with Godardian technique, oscillation and flourish that its commercial character is distorted. It’s clear that Godard is in complete control of his film.
Before becoming a filmmaker, Godard worked as a critic for the influential French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma. In the pages of the publication, he advocated for an "auteurist" approach to understanding cinema. Now highly contested, the auteur theory proposes that directors are the unquestionable and central creators of a film.
In Cahiers du Cinéma, American directors like Orson Welles, John Ford and Howard Hawks were reappraised, elevated from their status as film studio employees to artists in their own right. This approach sidelines the commercial aspects of industrial filmmaking, redefining filmmakers as powerful, boundless visionaries. It goes without saying Godard took this belief into his practice, proudly branding the opening of his films with his name, etched right across the film frame.
While there are various ways to interpret Contempt – as a “sexual melodrama…a sendup of Hollywood conventions, and as a celebration of beauty in all of its many forms,” as A.O Scott puts it – its main thrust lies in the collision of art and commerce. Paul (Michel Piccoli), a talented playwright, is hired by American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Pallance) to revise a film script of Homer’s Odyssey. Fritz Lang – playing himself – is directing the film, but he and Prokosch are experiencing problems. It’s fitting that Godard stages this perennial clash against a backdrop of ancient Greek mythology.
Like in many of Godard’s films, Contempt ’s characters are archetypal. Prokosch is tall and broad-shouldered, dressed in an expensive suit; dripping in Americanness. His presence dominates Godard’s frame, as he strides through sets, screening rooms and bedrooms, solving problems with his chequebook and creating them with his outbursts. “You’ve betrayed me, Fritz. That’s not what’s in the script,” Prokosch says, pointing a finger at Lang. A little later, Lang gets the final word: “the Nazis used to take out a pistol instead of a chequebook.”
Godard makes it clear that Prokosch personifies the rapacity of producers and the capitalist system more generally. He kicks and hurls film reels, clearly seeing no value in film other than as a profit-making machine. At the other side of the spectrum, Lang – the veteran filmmaker – stands for the pursuit of artistic excellence. Wearied by Nazi occupation of his homeland and the pressures of American capital, his vision and ambition remain uncurbed. His Odyssey is unconventional and impressionistic. And he’s not afraid to push back against Prokosch’s incessant demands. “The screen is pictures. Motion pictures it’s called,” condescends Lang, lecturing Prokosch on a basic tenet of film grammar.
Paul is caught in the crossfire of their struggle. With origins in theatre, and a quiet, introspective disposition, Paul certainly appears to be a profound artist. Though, he also routinely accepts Prokosch’s cheques to perform rewrites of the script. There’s little doubt that they will comply with Prokosch’s expectations. “I want you to write some new scenes for The Odyssey. Not just sex, but more – more,” Prokosch instructs.
Most compromisingly, Paul invites Prokosch to make advances towards his wife, Camille (Brigette Bardot). In an early scene, Paul encourages Camille to ride alone with Prokosch in his sportscar to a meeting, while Paul travels alone in a taxi. Camille is repelled to think that Paul is bartering her off for Prokosch’s allegiance. In her eyes – and Godard’s, too – Paul is prepared to endanger their marriage for his career and commercial opportunities. Camille’s feelings for him are irretrievably lost, and it’s her withdrawal that marks Paul’s descent, his betrayal of art and love for the hollow pleasures of American commercialism.
Interestingly, these tensions didn’t just play out in front of the camera. Godard was constantly asked for changes by his producers, especially Carlo Ponti. Initially set on Marcello Mastroianni and his own wife Sophia Loren for the parts of Paul and Camille, Ponti’s choices were quickly panned by Godard. After some time, Godard and the producers agreed on Piccoli and Bardot. Although, this didn’t end the complications between filmmaker and producer.
Once Godard had finished shooting, Ponti wasn’t happy with the final cut. In true Prokosch fashion, Ponti wanted nudity. He would have to shoot Bardot naked. Acquiescing, Godard inserted a scene of Paul and Camille lying in bed. He’s clothed, she’s naked. On the surface, it would seem the producers had won.
But Godard was always going to have an answer. Better than leaving nudity out altogether, Godard uses it subversively. Instead of displaying the female body for visual pleasure, Godard critiques gratuitous nudity in commercial cinema.
The abrupt washes of colour over the screen – from a romantic red, to natural colouring, to an isolating blue – pull us out of the moment, forcing us to notice Godard’s architecture of the scene. Bardot’s body isn’t an object of pleasure, but one of defiance. Godard’s dialogue also assists here. Paul lists what he loves about Camille: her mouth, her shoulders, her face. “So you love me totally?” Camille asks. Paul has only named physical qualities, omitting Camille’s personality, intellect and capacity for friendship. Combined with an arcing camera movement, evocative of illusion and varnish, Godard makes a trenchant statement on Paul’s superficial attraction to Camille, one that refers back to our relationship to objectified women on screen.
André Bazin, who’s falsely quoted by Godard at the beginning of Contempt, once said that film is the most commercial of artforms. He is probably right, and it’s a menacing reality that even Godard hasn’t escaped. This is particularly true of Contempt’s production. But rather than letting it intrude on his work, Godard has used commerce against itself, denouncing its ploys and objectives to its face. In Contempt, Godard has created a work of exalted, extraordinary character. Both in spite of, and because of, its commercial associations.
– Nick Bugeja