1963, NR, 103 min. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Starring Fritz Lang, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 14, 1997
It's not Godard's best film, but it is one of cinema's most interesting looks at itself, masquerading as a love story gone awry. Sumptuously filmed in CinemaScope, Contempt was the director's stab at the business of filmmaking (originally released in 1963, this is a restored version from a newly struck print). The art is fine, it's the business that's the hard part, that ongoing battle between producer and director, accountants and visionaries, and so on, and it's a battle that still rages today, more than ever. Godard, for his part, couches his snipings within the framework of an unconventional love story highlighted by what must be the best performance ever from French sex kitten Bardot. As Camille, the frustrated wife of playwright Paul (Piccoli), she's a tortured, vaingloriously erotic bag of conflicted emotions. Husband Paul has been hired by unscrupulous producer Prokosch (Palance, hamming it way, way up) to do some quickie script-doctoring on a production of The Odyssey already underway in Capri. The film is being directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself, with gusto), and while Lang seeks to present a more poetic vision of the epic tale, Prokosch only wants more naked mermaids (so much so he practically drools while watching the dailies), and brings Paul in to do the deed. Paul and Camille divide their time between sunning themselves on the Capri cliffs and bickering -- the film's emotional set-piece is a 30-minute harangue that has all the faulty logic and nasty recriminations of the real thing: It's a flashback to everyone's worst relationship. That Piccoli and Bardot can manage such vitriol on (seemingly) short notice is a thing of wonder itself. Contempt opens (reportedly at the producer's behest) with a lengthy, loving look at a nude Bardot as she languishes against Paul and has him critique her body from stem to, ahem, stern. "I love you totally, tenderly, tragically," he tells her, and then, as in real life, things fall apart. Lang and Piccoli (and of course Godard himself) take great pains to make Palance's producer character look the fool; plenty of bad-natured ribbing goes on, and Palance -- as close to an antagonist as Contempt has -- eventually gets his in the end, though not in the way expected (a gun revealed in the first act may have no meaning whatsoever in Godard's world schematics). One of the shining lights of the French New Wave, Godard has continued to create unique visions ever since, though few have rivaled his original series of stylistic and storytelling breakthroughs as in Breathless or Contempt. Thus, it's wonderful to return to the Nouvelle Vague nearly 40 years later and discover that it's as fresh and bracing as ever.