Film Club 2: Film Club Breeds Contempt
It’s 00.31 here and I’m posting this early so maybe there’ll be some comments in the morning before I go to work…
Side-note: it’s weird how some titles are known in translation and some in their original languages. In the case of Godard’s LE MEPRIS, that’s what we call it in the UK, even though we don’t generally know what that word means, and in the US it’s always called CONTEMPT, which makes more sense, I’d say. Anyhow —
This is a film that I sort-of knew, in that received wisdom kind of way, and having seen lots of clips and maybe having caught half an hour or so of it here and there. Which is NO GOOD. So Film Club serves a valuable function, for me at least, in nudging me into actually watching the damn thing. Thanks to David Ehrenstein for the suggestion.
My Jean-Luc Godard issues: I think as a kid, getting into films, I probably caught a mixed bag of his movies, some of which intrigued but some of which alienated, and not in a good way. My attempts to build up a resistance are only now paying off. I always liked ALPHAVILLE, I now like BAND A PARTE and UNE FEMME MARIEE, and a few others. And I sort-of like WEEKEND and SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and a few others. Recently, his episode of TEN MINUTES OLDER was really strong. And I’m intrigued to re-see some of the stuff that put me off. If I can remember what it was. The stuff that was like slide-shows, you know.
But CONTEMPT isn’t like that — critic Jonathan Romney has called it the only Godard film you could possibly shed a tear to, which seemed like it could be interesting, engaging and possibly so atypical of JLG that I won’t get any closer to liking him as a whole, but I like a good weepie, so here we go (rolls up sleeves) —
The opening shot shows a camera sliding towards us on tracks, “exposing the mechanisms of cinema” in a way that’s not too Brechtian really, since the movie is about movie-making, so the camera’s appearance is narratively “legitimate.” Love the way the camera turns to face us with its cyclopean eye, the widescreen matte-box around it forming a frame within the frame. It’s echoed by many more frames-within-frames, like this —
Georges Delerue doesn’t get the love he deserves, I feel. His score for this film is typically lush and emotional, only slightly counterbalanced by Godard’s tendency to repeat it until we become rather more aware of it than would be normal. And the theme obstinately refuses to develop, so we’re on the verge of some catharsis with these unbearably gorgeous strings playing, but we never quite reach it. Somehow that makes it even more paifully moving.
Also, spoken word credits — I always approve of these. Welles, of course, has the best, aided by the fact that he’s got the best voice to deliver them with. It’s unfair, really: nobody else can compete. In FAHRENHEIT 451, Truffaut uses spoken credits because the written word is outlawed. Here, the movie is based on a book (Alberto Moravia — anyone read it?) and the hero is a writer, so the absence of onscreen text is more allusive and mysterious. It might be something to do with the powerlessness of the writer in this world of images…
Godard then wisely proceeds directly to Brigitte Bardot’s naked ass, thus ensuring at least some of his audience will stay to the end. Jesus Franco once used the example of the nudity in this film, and the fact that JLG said he’d included it for commercial reasons, to basically justify his entire career. I do like some Franco, but his argument does not entirely convince me. As to this nude scene, what’s unusual and fun about it is the way BB is talking about her body while the camera shows it: nudity is redoubled. It’s kind of a titillation/sexploitation scene, but her aimless prattling does have enough naturalistic value to give it another quality: it’s like a gentle parody of how women do sometimes talk. (Is this going to get me in trouble?) The most affectionate scene in the film.
Perhaps feeling that the scene was too simple, Godard spices it up with heavy colour filtration, which clicks off midway, leaving natural skin tones and a sudden renewed sense of nudity. It’s been said that Godard marks each part of the filmmaking process: his art exposes rather than conceals art, drawing our attention to script, performance, composition, lighting, design, editing, music and sound. This may be why so many filmmakers love him — he exploits the beauty of the unfinished, using rough edges that normally only the maker gets to see. And yet, Godard’s work has another kind of beauty, directly opposed to the first —
Off to the screening room! A particularly pleasing one, with its blue chairs. Why does Godard use such lovely bright hues? I’ve never read an attempt at explanation of that — we can simply accept it as being just the kind of thing he likes, and agree with him that the intense slabs of flat colour make for beautiful graphics, but I’d be very interested in a theory that added to that. Minnelli being the filmmaker most referenced here, in the dialogue about SOME CAME RUNNING and the film’s relationship to TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (I think Godard’s referred to it as his sequel), we could draw on Minnelli’s decision to make SCR look like “the inside of a jukebox,” but I don’t feel like JLG is trying to create a visual critique of society in this way: it would be more accurate to say he’s making the world look beautiful the way he wants it to.
But perhaps the colours have symbolic value? Again, theories welcome. We might produce a colour chart to hand out with future copies of the DVD. Red certainly = violence, as in the car crash, whereas the cool blue of the sea takes on tragic connotations…
Jack Palance and Fritz Lang and Giorgia Moll. Palance and Lang’s first scene is possibly their best. Palance using a film can as a discus is a nice moment, and his moronically gleeful reactions to the sight of a nude “mermaid” in Lang’s footage are priceless. Moll is charming but contradictory: she exchanges literary quotes with Lang, but allows Palance to sign a cheque on her back. Godard’s objectification of women — and the word is peculiarly accurate with him — is one of the things that’s creeped me out about him in the past. The body-part portraiture in UNE FEMME MARIEE is beautiful and rather tender, but the headless shots of a nude Bardot that come later on in this film seem glossy but brutal. Moll is part character, part plot function (translator) and part furniture, it seems.
Feminist theory might call this shot dehumanizing. But that’s definitely a human arse. But it’s certainly depersonalizing, and that’s something Godard has been guilty of a lot. But not consistently — Bardot’s character is also a character, not just a shapely figure. She’s mysterious, which I sometimes feel is a get-out clause for directors who don’t regard women as people, with comprehensible motivations the same as men, but it’s also a legitimate response to the problem of communication: other people are unknowable. LE MEP definitely falls more on the legitimate side of this divide.
Moll’s interpreter character was apparently Godard’s device to stop the Americans dubbing the movie: Moll repeats what Palance says in English, in French, and what Piccoli says in French, in English. The distributors dubbed the film anyway, so Moll now became a strange person who follows people around repeating or rephrasing whatever they say. Godard’s Parrot. I’d love to see that version.
Palance, whose presence evokes Hollywood and THE BIG KNIFE, is a pretty broad caricature of the vulgar producer. LE MEPRIS was co-produced by Joe Levine, who made his fortune with the Steve Reeves HERCULES. Palance plays Jerry Prokosch, producer of THE ODYSSEY.
Lang, as gracious and stately as most people found him in later life (he was much less of a gentleman when actually directing movies, by all accounts), is the film’s August Presence, the representative of art — we don’t gain much confidence in Piccoli as a writer, Palance represents the ugliness of commerce, Bardot is a typist, but Lang’s genius is to be taken as read. The shots we see from his movie (they’re already shooting it? The production process here doesn’t seem to make sense) are not actually Langian, and they’re certainly the kind of artsy stuff that would have got any director on a Greek myth sword-and-sandal epic shown the door, but they’re very pretty. When Godard cuts in shots of the Greek statues later on, interrupting the story of marital breakup, the effect is poetic, mysterious, and slightly chilling.
Back to that colour: the film has no credited art director, but do we believe that JLG bought all the coloured chairs and props and towels himself? The design is certainly his in conception, and you can see it expressed in his other movies, very consistently, even in their credits. But somebody must have helped. The IMDb lists one Pierre Guffroy as production designer (uncredited) on PIERROT LE FOU, which has a matching Technicolor look (remember Belmondo’s painted face at the end?), perhaps he should be investigated?
Outside the cinema, Palance offers Bardot a ride and Piccoli urges her to accept it. There’s a slight sense that he’s pimping her out, or at least trying to curry favour with his new boss. Bardot appears reluctant, Piccoli insists, and for the rest of the movie she resents him. The question of what actually happened during the half hour when Piccoli and Bardot were apart is never answered, making this one of the most important and infuriating narrative ellipses in all cinema. It’s vaguer than the Marabar Caves scene in EM Forster’s A Passage to India. (They should have put that on the poster. “Vaguer than Forster!”)
Love the fast cuts of Bardot, jumping from scene to scene — this seems to evoke memory and Poccoli’s character’s subjectivity more strongly than any other scene. JLG is basically inventing Nic Roeg here.
The big sequence in Piccoli and Bardot’s half-furnished flat is the bit that apparently drove The New Republic‘s Stanley Kauffman berserk, as he imagined Godard’s fans gasping: “‘That film must cost so-and-so many thousands of dollars a minute! Any commercial hack would be concerned to make each minute count for something. But Jean-Luc doesn’t care!’ The hidden referent here is not aesthetic but budgetary bravado.” It’s always dangerous to imagine what a film’s fans are admiring and then attack it for that — it puts a filter between critic and film that’s even thicker than Godard’s red gel.
In fact, while the protracted semi-breakup in the apartment is challenging in its duration, there are no dead moments in it, and it’s all informed by the drama of Piccoli’s plight and the mystery of Bardot’s behaviour. Piccoli’s behaviour is pretty obnoxious, but more straightforwardly motivated. After The Mysterious Event in the Marabar Caves, he leches after Moll, as if to revenge himself for Palance’s presumed depredations. Bardot catches him, and for a while he assumes that’s what she was mad at. But her frostiness towards him predates that infelicitous discovery. He also assumes the problem has to do with money, and the flat they’re buying and decorating. But we get no sense that he’s right here.
Piccoli slapping Bardot is a nasty moment, and a problematic one (but with Godard, “problematic” = interesting). I’m reminded of my friend Simon’s remarks, after viewing TWO FOR THE ROAD (a considerably lesser sixties relationship movie, I think we can agree) that Albert Finney’s character was incredibly obnoxious and arrogant. “But men were like that then,” his mum informed him. I don’t get any sense that Godard approves of Piccoli’s bit of domestic violence, but he sees no reason to step in and offer his editorial judgement on it.
Bardot dons wig. If we associate red with aggression and Palance, her choice of apparel may be telling us something here. But Piccoli, despite being a playwright, isn’t adept in the interpretation of toweling. He needs a towelomancer.
Richard Brody, in his much-criticized JLG bio, seems to suggest that many of Godard’s films are not only direct commentaries on his relationship with partner and sometime star Anna Karina, but actual admonitions to her, attempts to keep her in line, or something. The rather unsympathetic portrayal of Piccoli in this film would seem to argue against that, unless we’re going to accept Godard as an insensitive clod who thinks the Piccoli character is actually behaving well. While I’m willing to believe bad things about JLG, I don’t buy that one.
Split-screen effects created by architecture of flat seem like a clear influence on LAST TANGO IN PARIS. Bertolucci may have symbolically “killed” Godard in THE CONFORMIST, but the influence lingers. Godard’s widescreen enhances his ability to break up the frame like this. The wide-angle lens causes some rubber-walling distortion which gets in the way of his graphic flatness, but it’s not a significant issue. The white walls bounce the light around which helps them film on a location with real daylight as source. Reflected light is not flattering to the complexion, but when you’ve got somebody as smooth as BB (like porcelain yet more elastic) you can get away with it.
Weirdly ugly (in this ravishingly beautiful film) scene in a barn-like Italian cinema, reverberant music, which Godard jump cuts around the conversation. Cinema screen is brown. Afterwards, Lang quotes Berthold Brecht, calling him “BB.” An acceptable in-joke which could pass in a regular movie, but the fact that Bardot laughs at it is genuinely Brechtian — her character is called Camille, it’s the actress herself who’s known as BB.
Incidentally, isn’t BB good in this? Here and in Clouzot’s LA VERITE you see a very capable performer playing two very contrasting characters with the same set of distinct physical qualities, but her pouty beauty counts for something different in each film. The moment here where she aggressively shoos Piccoli out of the bedroom when her mum calls is a favourite: completely naturalistic and kinda funny. Piccoli also disappears into his role with unshowy grace, but he’s not as cute.
Capri! Where Palance’s villa, a bizarre structure, has a set of stairs that allows Lang to craft some genuinely Langian compositions. Again Piccoli urges BB to take a ride with Palance, this time by boat. Discussing Palance’s moronic “re-imaging” of the Odyssey with Lang (Ulysses takes ten years to return to Penelope because he’s just not that into her) Piccoli, perhaps by accident, hits on what may be the truth about Bardot’s attitude to him (which she has now given a name: Contempt). By refusing to eject the suitors, Ulysses emasculates himself in Penelope’s eyes. So then he has to kill them. Lang tells him that that would solve nothing.
The subsequent death of Palance and Bardot in a car accident seems like a flat narrative contrivance — this movie may have more of a conventional story than most Godards, but it’s still not his primary interest, I feel — but all is redeemed by the unbelievable lovely end shot, where Godard’s camera intersect its path with Lang’s, a sort of reverse-angle of the opening shot where the two lenses met and “kissed.” Godard/Lang stare out at the infinity of the sea, as a sinister voice pronounces “Silencio,” through a megaphone. David Lynch makes a mental note.