Phillip Lopate wrote that Jean-Luc Godard’s sixth feature film, Contempt (1963) is “one of the masterworks of modern cinema” and “may also be his finest.” As we learn in the iconic opening shot, it stars Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, and iconic sex symbol Brigitte Bardot. It is the only film starring the latter that is securely ensconced in the European film canon. It’s also based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, just as (one imagines, given other adaptations by Godard and fellow Hitchcocko-Hawksians) O Brother, Where Art Thou? was “based on” that same Homeric epic that Fritz Lang (playing himself) is making into a film within this film. Fritz Lang’s comment on CinemaScope alone (“it wasn’t meant for humans—it’s only good for funerals and snakes”) makes Contempt an essential work in the history of 2.35:1. Despite these, and many other, merits, it continues to strike me as second-rate Godard.
Its champions harp on the fact that this is JLG at his most humanistic and emotive; and it’s true that the film’s best qualities include its honest, head-on study of a relationship. Godard’s trademark irony is largely kept out of view (though, of course, there’s some intellectual banter, on the Odyssey, Hölderlin, and Corneille). Biographers have noted that this moodiness is largely attributable to marital problems the director was having with his wife and frequent collaborator Anna Karina. Indeed, “Contempt” is an emphatically personal film, the story as much of a crumbling marriage—between a stenographer (Bardot) and a screenwriter (Piccoli)—as of an international co-production at risk of going off the rails. Knowing that Godard sparred with his producers (including international heavyweights Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine) on set brings a feeling of gravitas to the onscreen filmmakers’ struggles.
Cinema for the sake of cinema, unsurprisingly, proves to be Godard’s medicine for melancholy. He opens the film with a now iconic shot of cinematographer Raoul Coutard dollying in profile toward us, tracking Giorgia Moll (who plays Lang’s assistant and Piccoli’s temptress) while the narrator reads us, after some credits, a note that Contempt is a story of the world in which cinema responds to our desires. One can imagine the bliss that Godard derived from directing one of his auteurist heroes, and one of the most sensuous women ever to grace the screen, at Cinecitta and Capri, in luminous widescreen. But the shot encapsulates what makes the picture watery for JLG standards: it is ostensibly experimental but at the same time that it is dismantling Hollywood film syntax and organization it is paying feudatory homage to those systems. Yes, this dynamic of infatuation and revision was sort of Godard’s groundbreaking M.O. at the time, but the fierce commitment that he would make in the 1970s to interrogating the politics of aesthetics began to appear as early as Le Petit Soldat. The ingredient most conspicuously absent here, though, present in earlier as well as much later films, is comedy. Save one good pun [to Piccoli’s explanation that he’s trying to look like Dean Martin, Bardot retorts, “More like l’âne (ass) Martin], “Contempt” is startlingly rigid and straight-faced. Why so serious?
Contempt plays at Film Forum through Thursday September 12.