Contempt

Even in a career defined by prankish dissonance and a staunch refusal to play by the rules, Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt may be the least ingratiating of his major works. It seethes with ill feelings toward its audience, the industry, several of its characters, and not least of all itself. Given a large budget, glossy production values, and international superstar Brigitte Bardot, the 33-year-old Godard yanked out the rug with both hands, turning in a poison-pen letter that begged to be hated, then feasted on the negative energy. Upon its initial release in 1963, critics and audiences were only too happy to acquiesce, condemning the film for shirking some expectations (a gun is picked up but never fired), subverting others (Bardot's nude scenes are coolly desexualized), and occupying the entire second act with a domestic spat. The film's critical fortunes have since reversed, but it hasn't gotten easier to like, especially now that Godard's movie-movie reflexivity has been thoroughly co-opted and occasionally trumped, most recently by Charlie Kaufman's prismatic script for Adaptation. But taken as an essay on the turbulent relationship of art, commerce, and love, Contempt remains one of the most eloquent and cohesive statements in the director's canon, a clear window into the mind of a prickly personality. Much of Godard's contempt was reportedly directed at American producer Joseph Levine, who insisted the film be shot in Technicolor and Cinemascope (a nice concession, given Raoul Coutard's rapturous photography), and goaded Godard into inserting Bardot cheesecake after he turned in his original cut. Typical of the director, he did what he was told, but achieved the opposite of the effect Levine intended: In an early scene, Bardot's luscious figure stretches across the entire frame, but the dialogue makes it clear that her body parts have been bartered piece by piece. Part of a tradition of beautiful and enigmatic Godard heroines, Bardot plays the bored wife of playwright Michel Piccoli, who gets an offer from boorish American producer Jack Palance (Levine's stand-in) to rework the script for a troubled film version of The Odyssey. Piccoli needs the paycheck to refurbish his and Bardot's new flat, but his mercenary purpose comes into conflict with his artistic integrity, especially when he meets legendary German director Fritz Lang (who plays himself). The tension that arises from his assignment creates a rift between Piccoli and his wife, culminating in a 30-minute war of words that's casually and perhaps deliberately excruciating to behold. In terms of pacing, the scene drives a wedge through the center of the film, cutting off any momentum as it heads into a haunting finale in sunny Capri. But as much as Godard turns on his own film, Contempt fights hard for cinema as it wrestles against commercial forces, with at least some of its joylessness coming from a hero who sells his soul to the highest bidder. A superb new two-disc DVD set further cements the film's emergence as a French New Wave classic, with an extensive essay by Phillip Lopate (who borrowed a line from Contempt for his indispensable book Totally Tenderly Tragically) and an illuminating commentary track by film scholar Robert Stam. The other features are a grab-bag of materials from the period, with a few dull mini-documentaries on Lang and Bardot mixed in with a lively one-hour exchange between Godard and Lang (The Dinosaur And The Baby) and a rare interview with the director for French television. Nearly 50 years after his debut, Godard's bag of tricks has lost some of its novelty—witness the curdled In Praise Of Love—but Contempt has retained its bitter potency.

More DVD Review