Lucien Goldmann, a Marxist critic, said that Contempt, a film by Jean-Luc Godard (1963): “is about the impossibility of loving in a world where The Odyssey can’t be filmed.” (In a world without gods.) It’s an imaginative interpretation, and a surprisingly reactionary one coming from a Marxist critic commenting on the work of a Marxist director, but it links two of the picture’s themes: 1) the end of the couple Camille (Brigitte Bardot) and Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli); 2) the difficult relation between art and commerce; i. e.: the creative differences between director Fritz Lang (himself) and producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The problem with Goldmann’s thesis is that he reached a totalizing conclusion starting with a particular example, but, mixing gods to the equation, the film invites such an universal statement.
Apparently the reason why Camille starts to despise Paul is more down to earth than hinted above: she feels used by her husband. When Jeremy Prokosch hits on her Paul does nothing until it is too late (he even encourages his advances ignoring her supplicating eyes). Godard himself said that Camille is like a vegetable
“acting […] by instinct, so to speak, a kind of vital instinct like a plant that needs water to continue living.”
Contempt is a tragedy (George Delerue’s score never let’s us forget it; Paul to Camille:
“I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.”)
and that’s why Lucien Goldmann isn’t that wrong. The events are linked together in a fabric weaved by the fates. Paul Javal was a hack who sold his wife the moment he sold himself. Camille doesn’t rationalize her reactions, but she’s a victim of the commodification of human relations.
The gods no longer exist, so, they can’t influence the lives of humans, but, in a capitalist world, money took their place reigning supreme over everything. That’s why Jeremy Prokosch says:
“Oh! Gods! I like gods! I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel.”
To which Fritz Lang replies:
“Jerry, don’t forget: the gods have not created men; men have created gods.”
If men created gods and destroyed them, they can also destroy capitalism.
It wasn’t the first time that Paul was an hack either. He previously wrote Totò Against Hercules. We can only imagine a comedic peplum (Totò, Antonio Gagliardi, was an Italian comedy actor). Contempt’s producer Joseph E. Levine did produce Hercules in 1958 though. He may very well be the target of Godard’s satire. Prokosch is a caricature, obviously: showing him lusting after a nude female swimmer in Fritz Lang’s The Odyssey is a comment on his producer’s insistence to show Brigitte Bardot’s body in the film (Paul:
“cinema is great: we look at women and they wear dresses, they participate in a film, crack, we see their asses.”)
Contempt is full of self-referential and autobiographical details like the one above. Another is Brigitte Bardot wearing a black wig to look like Anna Karina, Godard’s wife. Paul is clearly Godard’s alter ego: wearing a similar hat (as shown in his cameos) and a similar admiration for American films (Camille:
“I prefer you without hat and without cigar.”;
“It’s to imitate Dean Martin in Some Came Running.”)
While being on the terrace of villa Malaparte Camille waves at some point. At whom? The paparazzi who infested the surrounding bushes?…
At the beginning of the film, at Cinecittà Studios in Rome (sold by Prokosch to a chain of malls), we can see film posters of Godard’s own Vivre sa Vie (To Live Her Life) and his favorite films also produced in 1962: Hatari by Howard Hawks, Vanina Vanini by Roberto Rossellini; and 1960: Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock. We may draw two conclusions from this list: 1) not everything that money touches is crap; 2) the Italian film industry wasn’t as dead as it seemed because masterpieces continued to be created. This means that the reading of the images gives some nuance to an otherwise seemingly boneheaded message.
Camille being trapped between the posters of a film in which men hunt and a film about a sex worker. It’s no wonder that she wears a dark color. More about that, later…
In the above image, taken from Godard’s La Chinoise (1968) we are invited to confront vague ideas with clear images. The image is clear enough to me: it shows a bourgeois interior with red furniture. Red being the symbolic color of communism the contradiction is self-evident, but how many viewers do the reading? In a logocentric culture, what’s shown to us is automatically hidden.
Being a commercial product directed by an avant-garde director means that Contempt self destructs. Godard even mocks the choice of CinemaScope, a format that, in the words of Fritz Lang:
“Is not suitable for Men. It’s suitable for serpents and funerals.”
And yet… it allows the most interesting formal device of the film. CinemaScope is the format of epic action movies so something unusual was bound to happen when put in the service of domestic drama. In the central act of this three part play (some may argue that it is the most interesting) Camille and Paul are shown in a maze of walls and doors. (The door without glass that Paul opens to enter a room while returning through the wide opened hole is a Keatonian gag. Ditto Camille absent mindedly passing under a ladder to avoid doing the same on her return when she realized what she had just done.) The couple is shown like mice in a lab experiment, the architectural obstacles between them being symbols of their gradual estrangement. Godard even shows a book about opera and an image of the interior of an opera house to further hint at how ridiculous his producers’ ideas of grandeur are (or as an omen of tragedy). In the duly famous conversation between Camille and Paul with the white lamp between them Godard forces the wide format to behave like a more intimate close up framing refusing to do what would be obvious: to show both actors at the same time.
Another great device used by Godard is color. He uses it (especially the clothes’ colors) as symbols. We know Godard’s attraction for primary colors. In Contempt they’re codified as indifference (yellow, but also green), antagonism, communism (red, but also orange), fate, fight, Neptune (blue). All those colors are shown at the beginning of the film (as filters) to contradict the love scene. Or, in a Deleuzian image-time manner to flash-forward what’s already written in the
fates’ tapestry script. The living room in Camille and Paul’s house has blue chairs, a white lamp and an orange couch (it’s almost bleu, blanc, rouge, the French flag; France is viewed as a nation divided). The examples of the use of colors as symbols are too many to cite here: it’s in the orange couch that Camille discovers that Paul is a member of the Italian Communist Party. This turns his selling out to capitalism even more unforgivable of course (being Paul Godard’s alter ego it’s obvious how self-loathing this scene is; ditto Paul using a bath towel to look like a toga in Levine’s peplum). On the other hand the Italian Communist Party was an important member of what was called back then eurocommunism, that is, a revisionist mild version of hardcore communism. We may thus read Paul’s betrayal as a more profoundly political one. Ditto the singer in orange and red at the theater singing a pop song to the masses around her (24000 baci – 24000 Kisses – by Adriano Celentano with the lyrics detourned to include the word “politics”) . In the same sequence Fritz Lang quotes “poor” BB – a pun between Bertolt Brecht’s initials and Brigitte Bardot’s nickname:
“Every day, to earn my daily bread/ I go to the market where lies are bought/ Hopefully/ I take up my place among the sellers. […] Hollywood.”)
At the end of the film Prokosch’s red Alfa Romeo (Camille:
“get in your Alfa, romeo.”)
has an accident against a blue oil (!) truck. Prokosch, Neptune’s tool, is dressed in red while Camille, a willing sacrificial victim on the altar of capitalism is dressed in blue. (Fritz Lang:
“Death is not the end.”
It isn’t because the film has an epilogue.)
This use of color influenced John Cassavetes in Opening Night (1977). A film about theater as Contempt is about filming. In it actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) fights with a red dress (life and youth) against the forces of aging and decay (black).
Godard, like Johannes Vermeer frames domestic drama to give us the feeling of peeking some secret that we’re not supposed to witness.
Like Rembrandt Godard uses shadow to a dramatic effect: showing melancholia and distress…
The opening shot ends with Raoul Coutartd’s camera pointed at us, the viewers, while a voice over quotes Michel Mourlet (not André Bazin as stated):
“The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in accordance with our desires. Contempt is a story of that world.”
What are these desires, then? The camera asks… Do we want tragedy and catharsis like the old Greeks did in their theater? Or do we want unresolved disturbing truths? Godard’s film ends with the death of Camille and Prokosch, victim and tool of an inhuman system. The last sequence being shot in Contempt of the diegetic The Odyssey ends with a victorious Ulysses, as he arrives at his homeland, Ithaca. He is facing the sea (Neptune), to tell him that, against all odds, he fought and beat him. In this story outside a story the
“truth 24 frames per second”
could never do that. (Another cinephile reference in Contempt is Viaggio in Italia – Journey to Italy – 1954 – by Roberto Rossellini, in which a troubled couple finds redemption. The same thing doesn’t happen in Contempt, of course.) The last words belong to Jeremy Prokosch and Francesca Vanini, yes, Vanini (Georgia Moll): after being reminded by Paul that Fritz Lang fled Germany because he didn’t want to have anything to do with the Nazis, the former simply put it:
“This is not 33, it’s 63.”
(There’s no escape.) Plus: Francesca to Paul:
“You aspire to a world like Homer’s, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t exist.”