Dir./Scr. Jean-Luc Godard
Even in the most enlightened circles, the mere mention of Jean-Luc Godard directing a million-dollar international coproduction of Alberto Moravia's Ghost at Noon in Rome and Capri for Carlo Ponti and Joe Levine seemed the height of improbability from the very beginning.
Once Contempt was completed, Levine was shocked to discover that he had a million-dollar art film on his hands with no publicity pegs on which to hang his carpetbag. Levine ordered Godard to add some nude scenes, then challenged the New York censors like the great civil libertarian he is, and finally released the film with a publicity campaign worthy of The Orgy at Lil's Place. The New York reviewers, ever sensitive to the nuances of press agentry, opened fire on Brigitte Bardot's backside. It strikes me that this is attacking Contempt at its least vulnerable point, since even if Miss Bardot were to be photographed au naturelle fore and aft for a hundred minutes of Warholian impassivity, the result would be more edifying, even for children, than the sickening mediocrity of Mary Poppins. [Andrew Sarris, 1/28/65]
The transition from Alberto Moravia's Ghost at Noon to Jean-Luc Godard's is largely the transition from a first-person novel to a third-person film. Moravia's Riccardo Molteni is obviously close to Moravia himself, and Molteni's wife, Emilia, merely an extension of Moravia's
sensibility, a sort of subjective correlative of what the novelist feels about sex in the life of an artist. However, Riccardo and Emilia are both Italian and, as such, are closer to earthy essentials than Godard's transplanted French couple, Paul and Camille Javal, represented with Gallic perverseness by Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot. Piccoli, grossly hirsute to the point of parodying the virility many artists like to assume as the mark of their métier, is denied the nobly Homeric vision of Moravia's Molteni, and the audience does not see the problem through his eyes but, curiously enough, through Fritz Lang's.
Some of the inside jokes in Contempt are turned against both Godard and his colleagues on Cahiers du Cinéma. When Bardot and Piccoli tell Lang how much they admired his Rancho Notorious with Marlene Dietrich, he tells them he prefers M. This is an anti-Cahiers position on Lang's own career, and Lang's description of CinemaScope as a process suitable for photographing snakes and funerals is aesthetically reactionary enough to make André Bazin roll over in his grave. Lang's kind words for Sam Goldwyn are the final confirmation that Godard has allowed Lang to speak for himself rather than as a mouthpiece for Godard. The effect of Lang's autonomy is to complete the degradation of Piccoli as a mere parrot of Nouvelle Vague attitudes toward which Godard displays mixed emotions. When Piccoli announces that he is going to look at a movie to get some ideas for a script, Bardot asks him with rhetorical scorn why he doesn't think up his own ideas. Piccoli is not even allowed to challenge the vulgar conceptions of Jack Palance's ruthless American producer, Jeremy Prokosch. Lang lines up with Homer, Palance with commerce, and Piccoli becomes a feeble echo of the producer who has set out to humiliate him.
We are not moved by what happens to the marriage of Piccoli and Bardot. We are not even particularly concerned with what happens to the ridiculous epic Palance wants Fritz Lang to direct because only a German can understand Homer. The characters keep talking about Homer's classical cosmos of appearance as reality as opposed to our atomic universe under constantly anxious analysis, but the consciously tawdry players in the film-within-a-film indicate that the great Fritz is laboring on a potboiler. Then what is so moving about Contempt? Simply the spectacle of Fritz Lang completing a mediocre film with a noble vision in his mind and at the edge of his fingertips. Godard appears in the film as Lang's assistant, and he repeats Lang's instructions to the camera crew, as if in this curious man who has always known how far to compromise in order to endure is hidden the real Homeric parable of Contempt. Where Mastroianni-Fellini in 8l/i is an artist who happens to be a movie director, Lang in Contempt is a movie director who just happens to be an artist. [Andrew Sarris, 2/4/65]
Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 stab at a "commercial" feature, Contempt is at once a movie of outrageous formalism (bold colors, abstract chunks of sound) and documentary verisimilitude (cast speaking an undubbed mixture of French, English, Italian, and German). An international co-pro, adapted (with surprising fidelity) from Alberto Moravia's bestseller, shot (at Cinecittà) in Technicolor and CinemaScope, it's the story of a French writer (Michel Piccoli) who takes a job from an American producer (Jack Palance) and, as a result, loses his wife (Brigitte Bardot). The plot is distilled to anecdote in the sun-smacked Mediterranean light and further fractured by the surging melancholy of Georges Delerue's musical theme, not to mention the inserts of Bardot skinny-dipping demanded by Godard's producers. At one point, the movie is interrupted by the message that "Joe Levine is calling from New York." Contempt begins with a charged quote from Godard's mentor André Bazin —
"Cinema replaces the world with one that conforms to our desires" — followed by a close-up of Brigitte Bardot's world-famous derriere.
Moravia's novel was translated as A Ghost at Noon, and Godard's movie has the quality of a daylight haunting; an empty studio is populated by a collection of movie apparitions. The tawny nexus of desire (and token of male exchange), Bardot is never other than a platonic image of herself—although she sometimes wears the wig that Godard's then muse Anna Karina wore in Vivre sa Vie. Piccoli, whose stingy-brim fedora, rolled up shirtsleeves, and loosened tie suggest a refugee from the set of Some Came Running (Godard wanted Sinatra), has been hired to rewrite the peplum Odyssey being shot by a philosophically world-weary Fritz Lang (who "actually plays himself," the New York Times noted with surprise).
Given to big pronouncements quoted from a tiny book of wisdom, producer Palance enters the deserted Cinecittà lot in a mood of fatuous melancholy: "Only yesterday there were kings here." Beloved by Cahiers for his portrayal of a star in revolt in The Big Knife, Palance plays the producer as if reprising his Attila the Hun in the Hollywood peplum Sign of the Pagan.
Thanks to Lang's ill-starred production, the Olympians preside over the modern store. "I like gods, I know exactly how they feel," Palance declares in the midst of trashing the master's rushes. (A famous quotation from Louis Lumière is inscribed beneath the projection-room screen: "The cinema is an invention without a future.") Afterward, Palance coaxes an unwilling Bardot to ride in the red Alfa Romeo that serves as the story's deus ex machina. Later, back home and betoga'd in towels, Bardot and Piccoli pace and squabble through a half-furnished apartment—enacting the disintegration of their marriage in the stunning, half-hour tour de force that provides the movie with its centerpiece.
Godard called Contempt the "story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity." Thirty-odd years later, it seems like an elegy for European art cinema, at once tragic and serene. If Contempt is a myth about the baleful effect of the movie god on the lives of two mortals, it is also the story of Godard's victory over a similar seduction. Lashed to the mast of irascible genius, he heard the song of the sirens and lived to tell the tale. [J. Hoberman, 7/1/97]
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