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DVD SAVANT

Contempt


Contempt
Criterion 171
1963 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 /103 min. / Le Mépris / Street Date December 10, 2002 / $39.95
Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Giorgia Moll, Fritz Lang
Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Film Editor Agnès Guillemot
Original Music Georges Delerue
Written by Alberto Moravia from his novel Il Disprezzo
Produced by Carlo Ponti, Georges de Beauregard, Joseph E. Levine
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In Franscope and Technicolor (although cameraman Raoul Coutard says few Tech prints were made), Contempt is a whole new experience on DVD than it was pan & scanned on a b&w television 30 years ago. Rebel Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard here seems to be going directly against his own cinema manifesto, shooting a widescreen glossy film with international movie stars, for big-money producers. It's as close as he got to Hollywood, yet he sticks to his beliefs: Contempt is as interesting for Godard, Fritz Lang and cinema fans, as it is frustrating for ordinary audiences (and its flummoxed producers). Criterion's DVD is loaded with an extra disc of docus and interviews that makes it more accessible than ever.

Synopsis:

'Hot' writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) used to be an obscure cobbler of crime novels, but now he's accepted a lucrative but humiliating job rewriting The Odyssey for moronic American producer Jeremy Prokosh (Jack Palance). The director is Fritz Lang (Fritz Lang). Paul's beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) doesn't like her husband's slumming among the film crowd, and especially doesn't like Prokosh, who makes overtures toward her as if she's included in the screenwriting fee. Worse, Paul doesn't seem to be concerned.

I think it was William Bayer in his Breaking Through, Selling Out, Dropping Dead who gave me the idea that Jean-Luc Godard called his movie Contempt, to express his distaste for his big paycheck producers, while purposely squandering their money on a film that only pretended to deliver the 'boxoffice' requirements they desired - big stars, a melodramatic plot, intrigue, and Brigitte Bardot's famous P.B.1 Only now is it obvious to me, that my eagerness then to regard Contempt as Godard's 'screw you' to Hollywood, stemmed from my inability to see past the film's unwillingness to be like every other factory-made movie. Godard wouldn't make a film this 'bad' unless he was doing it intentionally, right?

Although Contempt is more like a standard feature than most of his prodigious 1960s output, it's still the work of an iconoclast. There aren't any text messages flashing up at the screen, but he continues to rebel against convention, as he would ignore a patron who insisted that he make his poems rhyme. Even when covering a scene 'straight', we're aware of the camera as a separate, invisible but living entity, always objective and with a mind of its own. It's not used to create internal psychological realities for the actors, but instead plays exterior games, tracking along with them, leaving them stranded in gloriously asymmetric patterns, staying remote when we expect to get in close. A table lamp separates the feuding couple, and as they talk, we truck back and forth between them, seeing far more of the lamp than we do either party.

Godard's style is self-consciously aware of movie culture and movie lore, and Contempt is his The Bad and the Beautiful. But we aren't given elaborate scenes of moviemaking, real or phony, as in Minnelli's Two Weeks in Another Town; instead we get big servings of cinema philosophy - read from books, quoted by Michel Piccoli and Fritz Lang, and even written on the walls. The only scenes we see of what director Lang has supposedly shot of an expensive Cinecittá version of The Odyssey are statues, nude bathers pretending to be mermaids, and an actor playing Ulysses waving a sword. In Godard's self-referential cinema puzzle, the real movie being shot is Contempt itself. Fritz Lang is there for authenticity, but he sure doesn't direct with the Teutonic intensity we're told Lang directed.

Instead, we actually get an interpretation of the Faustian Moravia novel, where the screenwriter sells his soul to 'movie people' and reaps a whirlwind of misery. It's easy to stereotype the characters - loud and pushy Jack Palance makes a perfect loud and pushy American moneybags, vain, crass, and in love with himself. Michel Piccoli claims to be aping Dean Martin in Some Came Running, wearing a hat in the bath, but he's obviously the Godard cypher, pocketing the plush check from Palance. Prokosh crudely makes his secretary/interpreter bend over, using her back for a writing table: "Whenever I hear the world culture, I reach for my checkbook."

If Palance + Hollywood = Fascist arrogance, Piccoli's character is far too quick to toady to it. He takes the check, but loses his marriage in the bargain. Fickle wife Bardot is intensely proud of her husband, and her image of him as ethically elevated crumbles when she sees how he defers to the boorish Palance. Palance gives clear signals that he's interested in her, yet Piccoli cheerfully encourages Bardot to ride in the producer's (not red by accident) sports car. The two characters spend the next seventy minutes bickering over just this, but that's when Piccoli loses her, right there at the beginning. Political Correctness be damned, Bardot wants her mate to think her too important to be loaned out, even under polite or harmless conditions. It's Adieu, Paul. Bardot's Camille is not doing a vain pout: a compromised sellout is not worthy of her love.

Godard's long scenes play out in real time, and can be frustrating - we must spend thirty minutes watching Bardot and Piccoli goad, chafe and irritate one another - but the truth be told, this is how people behave, not the staged kind of dramatic realism that is the norm. Both Piccoli and Bardot refuse to acknowledge the real subject of their spat. Bardot is maddeningly pouty, pretending there's nothing amiss, while acting cold and hostile. Piccoli makes defensive arguments and rationalizations for crimes neither have brought up. In a way, it's a replay of The Big Knife. The wife of the artist wants to respect him, and is disappointed when he won't stand up to the nasty studio head. Here Palance changes sides to play the Stanley Hoff character. Prokosh is an insulting, vain megalomaniac who throws tantrums and makes crazy accusations to get his way. He relates to films on a totally infantile plane. Palance's reaction to the projected scenes of the nude 'siren' swimming in the sea looks completely authentic.

For viewers expecting pace or development, this is the wrong picture. After the interpersonal conflicts are set up, they don't change for the rest of the running time, while Godard attends to other concerns. They actually aren't reconciled, as Godard chooses a shocking but abitary violent ending, one we'd expect in The Big Knife. This aspect of the movie does make us envision Godard thumbing his nose at his producers' expections for more melodramatic engagement in his surface story, more sex, more cheap thrills. There's your ending. Now scram.

The balance is provided by Fritz Lang, playing himself. Godard obviously worships the director's feet, and like the cinema god that he is, Lang's function is to classically interpret The Odyssey, reminding Palance that men created the Gods, and not vice-versa. The poetic discussion of why Ulysses was gone for ten years bounces back and forth, with Piccoli pointedly suggesting that maybe he was trying to stay away from Penelope as long as possible. More classical jokes are introduced with characters wearing bathrobes like togas, and Palance tossing a film can as if it were a discus.

Godardisms are sprinkled throughout. The main titles are spoken, not written. Favorite movie posters are plastered wherever possible. Piccoli mentions Rio Bravo and Bigger than Life, and Bardot alludes to Rancho Notorious as her fave Lang film. 2 When the leads attend a typically artificial and unconvincing theater performance, Godard takes the opportunity to deconstruct the movie making process. A 'slotted' playback tape is used, to which the supposedly live singer on stage lip-synchs. The audio crew has spliced specific holes of blank tape into the playback reel. The appropriately timed gaps of silence will allow the spoken dialogue can be recorded in the clear. It's a standard musical technique, I saw it used on the big dance number in 1941. But here in Contempt, instead of remixing the scene with clean, uncut music, Godard leaves it raw. The jarring holes in the playback punch in and out, making the scene purposely artificial, unfinished ... anti-slick.

The acting is very good in this oddball picture, especially Bardot, who may be showing a lot of her true personality in following Godard's dictum to be herself. Piccoli became a major star with this role, and he has a nice balance of he-man strength and moral weakness. Palance chews scenery and acts boorish, just the values Godard wanted. And Lang in his twilight years (just before his vision began to fail) has a great time playing actor for a new wave punk, after 40 years of practice (supposedly) torturing actors.


Criterion's DVD of Contempt shows the classy company only getting better at what they do. The print is immaculate, with the naturalism of Raoul Coutard's camera inflected with a Minnelli-ish penchant for strategically placing the color red in almost every scene. The odd color effects on Bardot's opening nude scene, in the transfer supervised by Coutard himself, look great.

The first disc has an audio commentary, a scholarly treatise on the mechanics of Godard's visual schemes, but the real goodies are on the second disc. An hourlong conversation - Q & A between Lang and Godard starts it off. Godard quizzes the 'dinosaur' on topics far and wide, and Lang is a most affable and cooperative subject (esp. when compared to Bogdanovich's frustrating attempts to get Ford to give him the time'O day). There's a marvellous moment where they try to resolve their feelings about planning versus improvisation. Lang sketches a set on a piece of paper and plots out his way of breaking a scene down into shots, and then pushes the paper at Godard to ask him to demonstrate how he works out his scenes ... naturally, Godard can't do it, it's either all instinctive to him, or he's too shy to admit how simple or situationally-restricted his method is.

Several more short docus - on Bardot, the Paparazzi and Lang - shot during filming are here, some sharing footage with each other. We see Bardot on the set, characteristically playing with a puppy (that love of animals is no joke, I guess), while Godard tries to keep a constant flow of set-crashers and papparazzi away. We get a good look at what it was like to film this show, the way the actors behaved to one another, etc.

The capper is the Raoul Coutard interview. He tells us just about everything there is to know about Godard, the movie, the scope process, the color process used, and he's a great raconteur. I have to admit that I shyed away from Godard when younger, because all the literature on him lauded him as the kind of genius about whom one wasn't expected to ask questions, just worship. Contempt is one unique show, and certainly far from a masterpiece, but Criterion's DVD finally lets us evaluate it on an even playing field.

For the record, because there are several versions of the film, Criterion's is multi-lingual, in English, French and Italian. The music is the original string Delerue score, and not the jazz score on some versions. (spoiler) The scene of Fritz Lang directing a final shot on the roof of the villa is the final scene, not the more sensational scene - it comes immediately before. (Thanks to Aitam Bar-Sagi)


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Contempt rates:
Movie: Very good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by scholar Robert Stam, Short Docus: Contempt: Godard et Bardot and Paparazzi, The Dinosaur and the Baby: a conversation between Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang, filmed in 1967 (61 minutes), New interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Excerpt from an interview between Francois Chalais and Godard about Contempt
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: December 5, 2002


Footnotes:

1. Le Pouting Butt
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2. which should be the final proof that Fritz Lang is playing himself, not just a German director who happens to be named Fritz Lang. The things cinéastes choose to argue about!
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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