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Quotes, In-Jokes, & Other Playthings: Contempt

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Quotes, In-Jokes, & Other Playthings: <em>Contempt</em>

Brigitte Bardot’s naked ass. That’s the takeaway, the enduring image, from Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. I don’t remember too much else, but there are a few other visual pleasures in this view from the apex of cinematic modernism circa 1963. (That’s as scholarly a turn of phrase as you’re gonna get here, sorry.) There’s also Ms. Bardot’s wide, lush lips, her feline almond eyes (sullen has never looked sexier), Jack Palance’s hound dog grin and Michel Piccoli’s Rat Pack cigar-and-fedora styling. Fashion photogs must weep ecstatically when watching Contempt. As a collection of poses, moods and attitudes, it surely claims a spot on the Vogue style editor’s library shelf beside Antonioni flicks.

I’m sure Contempt was something to see in 1963. You’ve got Godard’s micro-abrasive politics; his existential pranksterism; his playful/serious way of reminding you that you’re watching a movie; his wisdom about men and women; his Sorbonne-and-beyond smarts; his love of cinema—all in blazing Cinemascope. Some of the film’s sights and narrative ruptures were probably as jarring in ’63 as a U.S. president’s exploding head. But in 2008, for this viewer born in 1972, none of it provokes as much thought and feeling as that ass. And the only vital question to ask of a 40-plus year-old film work is, Does it endure? My answer is, well sorta. There’s still some juice in the core “drama” (from Alberto Moravia’s novel), about a screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) and his ex-typist wife (Bardot) who face a marital crisis after an arrogant American movie producer (Jack Palance) hires him to re-write a foundering adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. When the producer appears to be seducing the wife, Piccoli flits between apparent jealousy and apparent indifference. At this, the wife’s apparent… contempt for the husband grows with his apparent ambivalence.

“Apparent,” “appears”—these are the terms to use when approaching Contempt and much of Godard’s insurrectionary work that followed it. (Note that he once wrote in the foreword to a book of François Truffaut’s letters, “François is perhaps dead. I am perhaps alive. But then, is there a difference?) Does Camille (Bardot) truly love Paul (Piccoli), and vice versa? Does Paul only care about achieving truth and poetry—professional commitments and even marriage be damned? And if so, does that make him a saint, a monster or a fool? Is Camille a siren, a social climber or just a scorned, insecure wife? Godard’s relentless contemplation roams too far, wide and deep to settle on conclusions, to allow any surface to stand for only one thing. That’s the mystery and beauty here, but it only goes so far.

A far superior filmmaker, Fritz Lang, hangs out in Contempt, portraying himself as the cool-as-shit Odyssey director. He answers Palance’s tantrums and Piccoli’s revolt with a whaddayagonnado shrug. His serenity is the film’s biggest (in-)joke: The fate- and death-obsessed director of M and Scarlet Street as a laidback professional. But Lang is the surefooted storyteller that delinquent Godard always refused to be while, as a charter New Waver, worshipping like the gods in The Odyssey. Ambivalence reigns: Love of Godard’s elder film artists in Europe and Old Hollywood/bemusement at the bourgeois folly of moguls and commercial cinema; appreciation for big screen opulence/understanding that it’s often just a pricey vanity mirror for powerful fools; a command of storytelling technique/impatience with the political complacency such narrative illusions encourage. Four years after Contempt, Godard finally broke free of story and stated his leftist politics unambiguously, with La Chinoise and Week End. That’s also the point at which my ambivalence about the director ends. Minus movie love, Godard became the full-on boring know-it-all that certain passages in Contempt forecast.

Anyway, Brigitte Bardot’s ass. And the rest of her, too. She’s the draw that made Contempt Godard’s biggest commercial hit. She’s the mystery and beauty mentioned above, in a blue dress, in various hairstyles, in the nude, in Cinemascope. It’s hard to tell if Godard preferred her as this symbol or as the realistic figure of a frustrated trophy wife, since she embodies both so perfectly. The film’s middle third, which simulates real time as Paul and Camille break up/make up/break up in their apartment, dares to capture something like reality. For about a half hour, Godard records what feels like a real, tense situation between a man and a woman (made resonant and suspenseful by prior events). Even if the sequence length is a strategy to subvert narrative, it still works as drama. I wonder if, even now, JLG realizes that poor working people want stories, things they can feel and use, while the bourgeois he is always harassing clamor for modernism, post-modernism, quotes, in-jokes and other playthings.

Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.