Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Based on a Novel by: Alberto Moravia
Starring: Brigette Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang
Producer: Carlo Ponti, Georges de Beauregard, Joseph E. Levine
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
One of the great joys of loving cinema is the opportunity to discuss it with like-minded people. However, quite often you can discover a minefield of snobbery, groups of self-styled intellectuals who think their opinion is final, or else dedicatees of straightforward storytelling who dismiss anything a bit unusual with that terrible word, the very enemy of invention, “pretentious”. Both types of snob are as bad as each other. Don’t kid yourself that you’re snobbery is any less vile because it’s rooted in the mainstream. A person watching an art-house film and whining that nothing is happening, complaining that there are no explosions and sicking up the word “pretentious” every few seconds is an inverted reflection of, and therefore exactly as hideous as, someone watching an action movie and sarcastically saying “Well, that’s good dialogue isn’t it?”, complaining “There’s no character development” and shrieking the word “brainless” over and over.
Apologies for beginning this review with a rant. I’m sure at some point in my life I’ve been guilty of both the types of snobbery I abhor so much in the above paragraph and probably slip into them occasionally still but I aim to discourage them when I can. However, my mention of them here is not so much a noble attempt to encourage filmic open-mindedness but rather a tactical attempt at self-defense, to deflect the judgemental, instantaneous dismissals that in some quarters would undoubtedly follow the statement I’m about to make:
I don’t like Jean-Luc Godard.
There, I’ve said it. I know Godard is considered to be one of the greatest, most influential and inventive filmmakers of all time but I just can’t get on with him at all. I know what a good portion of Godard fans will be thinking as they read this: “Oh, you just don’t get it”. But I do! I do get it with Godard! I’m perfectly willing to admit that I don’t get Michelangelo Antonioni and that I struggle to comprehend Andrei Tarkovsky but with Godard I can see exactly what he’s trying to do, how he’s trying to do it and why many people love him for it. But he’s not for me. I would never go as far as to diminish his undoubted importance in cinema history and I even intend to see more of his films in the future but all of what I’ve seen so far just doesn’t do anything for me.
Well, almost all of what I’ve seen so far……
As many people do, I began watching Godard with A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) and thought it was ok. After that I sat bored rigid through Alphaville, had pretty much the same reaction to Pierrot le Fou and found Week End sporadically impressive but largely tiresome. Thus I approached Godard’s 1963 film Le Mepris with no expectations whatsoever and was extremely surprised to find myself become completely captivated with its concentrated, layered storyline, emotionally detached acting and sumptuous visuals. There are many similarities between Le Mepris and the other Godard films I’ve seen but it has something extra that fascinates and delights me.
Or maybe it’s what it hasn’t got that fascinates and delights me. Le Mepris has a simplicity to it that sets it apart from the self-concious visual tricks, surrealist touches and distracting innovations of Godard’s early work that I’ve so often found smug or irritating. It’s not a conventional film by any means but it avoids the wayward sideroads that Godard usually delights in taking, providing a sharper focus than usual. The slim plot runs thus: playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is hired by brash American film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite a film version of The Odyssey he is producing. He has hired director Fritz Lang (playing himself) to make it but is dissatisfied with Lang’s arty interpretation. During their meeting, Paul brings along his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), to whom Prokosch immediately takes a shine. This meeting has a devastating effect on Paul and Camille’s marriage, from which Camille can never recover. The film follows both the production of The Odyssey and crumbling of the marriage, drawing many parrallels between the two.
Le Mepris is often seen as Godard’s most commercial film, although it would hardly been seen as box office gold by the average producer. Godard plays on this tension between the commercial powers and the artist in his portrayal of Prokosch’s meddling in Lang’s film. Prokosch’s demands and his lechery were certainly familiar to Godard. His own producer, Joseph E. Levine, insisted that he add a nude scene featuring Brigitte Bardot in order to make the film commercially viable. Godard did so but the scene, which opens the film, satirizes itself. An opening voiceover quotes Andre Bazin: “Film substitutes a world that conforms to our desires”, after which we cut to Bardot and Piccoli laying in bed together. Bardot is, indeed, completely naked but she remains laying face down throughout the scene, her bottom on constant display but everything else tantalisingly hidden from view.
Leaving the viewer in no doubt that he is aware of the objectification of Bardot, Godard has her take a long-winded inventory of her own body, asking Piccoli if he likes each part of her in turn, from her feet up through her ankles, knees, thighs, buttocks, breasts, shoulders, arms and face. The scene is not without its sensuality but Godard makes sure to emphasise its ridiculousness more. When she reaches her breasts, Bardot stops to ask Piccoli if he prefers her breasts or her nipples, to which he replies “I don’t know. Both equally.” Although it was added at the last minute, the body inventory scene improves Le Mepris immeasurably. Without it, there is never any indication that Paul and Camille are happy but, by beginning with this image of emotional and sexual bliss, Godard shows us that they are “totally, tenderly, tragically” in love. Without that confirmation, the subsequent breakdown of their marriage would be robbed of all its tragedy. This opening scene has become one of the most famous in World Cinema. Legendary comedy series The Fast Show even did a sketch in which a subtitled Charlie Higson took the same inventory of Arabella Weir’s body parts, after which Paul Whitehouse wandered in and asked “Anyone fancy a pint?!”
Le Mepris‘s other most famous sequence is a 34 minute argument between Paul and Camille which takes place entirely in their apartment. Godard follows them in a series of wonderful tracking shots as they set the table, take baths and wander from room to room. The mise en scene is exquisite. At one point, Godard films the couple in two different rooms at the same time, marginalising Paul on the edge of the frame, cut off from Camille by a dividing wall. This growing division between the couple is presented in visual terms throughout the film, most noticably when they sit on opposite sides of a cinema aisle. The argument in the apartment captures all the frustration and ludicrousness of a couple struggling with changed feelings. Camille’s perception that Paul has attempted to pimp her off to his producer in order to further his career is ambiguous. Paul does seem to behave in an offhand manner and sometimes like a downright chauvinist in his scenes with Prokosch’s interpretor, but his own struggle with artistic integrity over commercial gain (another self-referential element of Le Mepris) makes his pandering to Prokosch to the point of offering him his wife seem unlikely. This uncertainty means we do not have an obvious party to side with during the argument and share in all the frustrations on both sides.
Rather than present the ongoing arguments as hysterical, Godard has his actors remain detached and cold, their words sounding like philosophical meditations. His other characters are drawn boldly, with Jack Palance embodying sleaze as the producer who thinks nothing of observing images of Greek gods and saying “I like gods, I know exactly how they feel”. Fritz Lang, meanwhile, is amusingly laid back and always on the margins, simply observing. Lang’s appearance is just one of many references former critic Godard makes to film history. Numerous posters for influential films are glimpsed in the background, while at one point Paul mentions Nicholas Ray’s classic film Bigger Than Life. Ray’s famous use of stunning colour is clearly an influence on Godard’s use of colour in Le Mepris and he achieves similarly beautiful results. Le Mepris is never less than gorgeous to look at, even when its confined to interior settings for extended periods. But it is in the later scenes on the isle of Capri that the film becomes a genuine feast for the eyes. As Paul and Camille follow the production of The Odyssey onto location, the scenery gets appropriately monolithic and breathtaking, making the intensifying story seem positively mythic (equally appropriately).
Le Mepris, then, is a glorious exception to my ongoing dislike for Jean-Luc Godard. I found myself unexpectedly rivetted while first watching the film and then thought about it for days afterwards. One of the most elegant films I’ve ever seen, Le Mepris lingers long in the mind for all the right reasons and is a film I will cherish, as I imagine will most fans of World Cinema, be they Godard fans or not.