Jean-Luc Godard’s films are so rich and elusive they once inspired the great critic Manny Farber to famously write that “no other filmmaker has so consistently made me feel like a stupid ass.” Godard is so self-consciously dodgy and contradictory with the contexts with which he presents his various symbols and social signposts that you’re rarely allowed to gain your bearings, and so it’s often difficult to understand if he’s satirizing something or dramatizing it with a straight face (the short answer is both), and so you watch his films with an apprehension of committing to them emotionally, afraid he’s about to make a fool of you.
The difference between the run of legendary films that Godard made in the 1960s and the later works that are, sometimes unfairly, categorized as cold and perversely obtuse is that Godard once explicitly shared our apprehension. His determination to seemingly undermine every tone, and thus emotion, that he establishes in his films is rarely just an instance of contemptuous experimentation or gamesmanship, as the sadness of the inability to express emotion without ironic pop-cultural tethering is the grounding emotion.
This sadness abounds in Contempt, which presented Godard the opportunity to create a gorgeous CinemaScope movie paradise of sin and spiritual and physical dilapidation. The film is a feast of textures, as we feel as if we could dip our toe in the lush blue oceans or take a stroll on the crumbling Roman Cinecitta Studios that come to function as defunct amphitheaters of a bygone age. Unsurprisingly for Godard, there are icons, totems, and references galore, from the hat and slacks the screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) wears in homage to Dean Martin’s character in Some Came Running to his wife Camille’s (Brigitte Bardot) preference for tucking her traffic-stopping blond locks underneath a wig that could represent a cheeky reference the hairstyle of Godard’s own wife at the time, Anna Karina. There are discussions of Homer, as Paul intends to rework an adaptation of The Odyssey for shark producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), who’s bullying the legendary director Fritz Lang (as himself) into giving him a conventional costume epic. There are also discussions and references to Lang’s actual work, the writing of Godard mentor André Bazin, Roman art, and the nature of sensuality in films and literature. In the tradition of every Godard films, Contempt is a rich and heady cocktail of the various things swimming around in the filmmaker’s mind at the time of its production.
The film’s startling point is that none of these aesthetic sensations matter one whit in the face of emotional devastation, in those desperate times where no cultural bauble will distract you from the uncomfortable sight of your deepest interior realms. Paul fancies himself a cultured man, and he wields his knowledge around Camille as a way of leveling the playing ground in the presence of her stunning beauty; he’s a classic insecure male wounded by a beautiful woman he suspects might be out of his league, but even worse, he’s tortured by the suspicions that Camille stirs in Paul about himself: that he might just a regular guy beneath his carefully presented mannerisms.
The film is comprised of four neatly divided portions: a prologue and three acts. In the prologue, we first see Paul and Camille in bed in a sequence that’s said to exist solely to appease the producers’ demands that Godard actually exploit the physical presence of arguably the most beautiful woman in all of cinema. If there’s such a thing as “petulant erotica” (and any casual consumer of pornography would immediately agree that there is), these opening moments surely qualify. Godard’s camera basks in Bardot’s perfect rump with an air of requisite objectifying detachment that’s verbally supported by the way Camille fishes for compliments from Paul. She breaks herself down into parts, asking about her toes, her ass, and so on. She might not even know yet, but she’s parodying her own insecurities, which she (correctly) feels that Paul has exploited.
In the first act, Godard’s camera brilliantly drinks in Paul, Camille, and Jerry as they wander around the Cinecitta Studios airing the usual knotty, Godardian grievances about the decline of culture. We immediately notice a perversity in the director’s surly use of CinemaScope, as it manages to accentuate the profound emptiness of the vast landscapes, which always appear to be on the terrifying brink of gobbling the characters up alive. Not much appears to be happening in a literal plot sense, but every casual movement and uttered line is subtly exasperated by Godard in a manner that keeps us on the perpetual look-out for disaster.
The second act is legendary for good reason, and fans of Godard must have been shocked, at the time, by the director’s willingness to lay himself so bare metaphorically. The pretense that Contempt is about the waning struggle to maintain artistic integrity in the debased American film community suddenly collapses, and the notion of uttering a phrase such as “artistic integrity” at all is revealed by Godard to be the indulgent, self-justifying bullshit it often is. We’re trapped in a beautiful flat with two of cinema’s most beautiful and commanding icons, yet, these scenes never feel like an escapist pleasure cruise or an idealization of real romantic problems, and the sheer length of these scenes allow Bardot and Piccoli to explore the simultaneously demoralizing riddles of romantic relationships with a degree of detail that wouldn’t be topped until nearly a decade later with Last Tango in Paris.
In the tradition of beautiful women, Bardot has had to contend with the idea that she’s a splendid shape and little else, an easy reduction that springs from the kind of intimidated male ego that Contempt so ruthlessly exposes, but any debate of her talent ends with her performance in this film. Godard has never been more empathetic of a female performer, and she earns his complicity. The opening image of Bardot’s butt invites our male gaze, but the film that follows crushes that gaze and reveals it to be a pathetic dodge, an escape from dealing with who Camille, standing in for all women, is.
We never learn who Camille really is under her guise of the stunner—the parameters of this story purposefully don’t allow for that, but Bardot allows us to see the suppression of this character’s fragility, which hauntingly suggests the person we never know—and this evasion of identity imbues the third and final act with an overbearing sense of loss. We see Lang shooting portions of his Odyssey, which are represented by Godard with startling still images, but the emotional deflation of Camille and Paul’s long verbal battle royale trumps aesthetic pleasure. Contempt fully earns every possible interpretation of its bold title, as Godard commits the ultimate act of artistic bravery, refuting everything he’s embraced or known, saying by implication that, “I can do better. I can be more. I can be purer.”