FILM (1963)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am


Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

The title of Jean-Luc Godard's e Mepris (Contempt) deliciously refers to two separate but intertwined themes.

Godard had said the year before that he wanted to stop making films that were comments on cinema - masterpieces such as Breathless are brilliant examinations of cinematic form and technique - and move out into the world of real people. Contempt is a combination of the two approaches. The contempt is, first, what grows between two people whose marital relationship has become exhausted by complacency and time. But it also refers to Godard's disgust with Hollywood's industrialised film production system. Godard expertly weaves the two themes together in one storyline.

Contempt marked a big departure for the filmmaker. It was a CinemaScope film co-produced by Carlo Ponti, a heavyweight international producer. Until that point, Godard had worked with smallish budgets and taken advantage of the new, lightweight Arriflex film cameras to shoot with small crews on the fly. It was also the first time Godard had worked with a major star; his leading lady was Brigitte Bardot. He did all that was necessary to please his producers, whom he didn't much care for, and still managed to make a film that was definitively Godardian.

The film centres on a screenwriter, played by Michel Piccoli, who's hired by a Hollywood producer (Jack Palance) to rewrite a script for a Hollywood production of Homer's The Odyssey. As Piccoli struggles with Palance's demand that he adds new material to the classic, his marriage to the beautiful Bardot crumbles. Godard skilfully shows the deception, self-deception, uncertainty and outright loathing that accompany the break-up of any long-term relationship. The film is a tour de force of suppressed emotion that rings true.

Bardot turns in a credible performance as a young woman whose love for her husband has been dulled by his patronising treatment of her. Piccoli's character is a flirt who refuses to take his wife seriously. Godard's direction brings out a bitterness between the two that is softened by the shadows of the love that was. The film is at times brutally aggressive: 'It's contempt,' the wife tells her husband. 'It disgusts me when you touch me.' The two argue and then flip back into their marital complacency as though the arguments never happened. The film's emotions are very human and far removed from movie stereotypes.

Godard, a former film critic, loved classic Hollywood films but felt Hollywood itself had gone into an intractable decline. He mocks the Hollywood way of producing films by making The Odyssey's film producer, played by Palance, an ass. Godard hired legendary Austrian director Fritz Lang to play the film-within-a-film's director. Lang exhibits resignation in his role as an artist held hostage to the Hollywood machine.

Although Bardot and Piccoli have many arguments, it's actually Palance who has the most petulant moment. Annoyed with Lang's footage, he hurls cans of film directly at the camera. Godard later revealed that Palance was actually throwing the film cans at him. Palance, apparently annoyed by the fact that Bardot was getting better treatment, also reportedly tried to get out of making the film during shooting, and didn't speak to Godard for months after it had wrapped.