The word “masterpiece” has been used to describe Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 movie “Contempt (Le Mépris)”, but that’s not quite the right adjective. For a movie to be a masterpiece, it needs an almost coldly calculating eye toward technical detail, as well as emotional energy. But see for yourself, as “Contempt” opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Jan. 31, 2014 as part of the Godard Forever: Part One retro currently underway.
It certainly is a valiant effort on Godard’s part, as “Contempt” marked his first foray into big-budget, big name movies. He takes a not very thinly disguised look at Hollywood’s inner machinations by creating a movie inside a movie, but it’s when he steps away from that and explores human nature, his own film shines through.
Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), are a couple teetering on the edge of divergence, which arises when he, a playwright, is hired by American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to write his latest film, “The Odyssey”, which is directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself.) Jeremy wants bigger! badder! louder!, while Paul chafes at the thought of a Greek classic being bastardized in such a way.
Godard sets up the film so that the writing and filming of “The Odyssey” is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but the marital cracks appear insidiously before then. Paul’s failure to see his wife — sexy and beautiful as she is — is the root of their later bickering, not Jeremy being the one to give her the attention she so craves. The producer’s actions don’t help, of course, but they’re used as a plot device to catalyze the end.
The filmmaker brings an artistic touch to tell his story, using intangibles like colours to supplement the words. In the beginning, Camille is lying down nude on the bed, asking Paul if he likes or loves various body parts. That Godard used red and blue filters both obscures and illuminates the scene; her body lines aren’t very clear, but the foreshadowing is impossible to ignore. The reds and blues pop up at later points in the film, underwriting the passion and blasé feelings that refuse to go away (there’s even one final showing of red at the film’s end that brings it full circle.)
And while Godard is errant in his attention to detail more than once in “Contempt”, it’s when the movie’s analyzed from a greater distance and within context that the director has pulled off a masterpiece. His own marriage to Anna Karina was just over a year away from ending, and the more emotional scenes in the movie (the villa stairs, the apartment argument) seem to reflect Godard’s own inner turmoil. On some level, he must have realized that his own marriage was to be no more, and used that theme in “Contempt” by way of both Piccoli and Bardot and “The Odyssey.”
The acting, for the most part, is very good, as the quartet do well with the script (which can be flimsy at times.) Palance, burdened with an archetypal character, manages to elevate himself above it and brings an element of humanity to his role. Lang, who knows that his part is more of a supporting piece, never tries to break the Peter principle and contentedly portrays himself as a pacified grandfatherly figure.
But the real stars of the movie are Piccoli and Bardot, connecting on many levels as a couple who just don’t appreciate the other in the way that’s needed. Their fighting can be vicious at times, but familiarity does breed contempt.
“Contempt” screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Jan. 13 and again on Feb. 4 as part of Godard Forever: Part One. For more information on the retro and to buy tickets, visit the website of TIFF Bell Lightbox.