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Contempt (Le mépris): Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // December 10, 2002
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted December 27, 2002 | E-mail the Author
The movie



From very beginning, we can see
that Contempt (Le mépris) is something different, a film that is
intentionally breaking away from the norms of cinema. The opening credits are
read to us rather than shown in text on-screen, while the scene that plays in
the background includes a cameraman filming the actors. It's oddly startling,
but after all, why not have the credits read instead of printed? It's the first
sign that Contempt is no Hollywood picture, but an entry in the French
"New Wave" cinema of the 1960s; directed by Jean-Luc Godard, it
consciously breaks free of theatrical conventions, including the conventional
ways of relating to the audience.



The central story of Contempt
is of a scriptwriter (Michel Piccoli) who is hired to do a rewrite of the
script for a film of Homer's Odyssey; the director (Fritz Lang playing
himself) has taken it in a highly artistic and unconventional direction, and
the aggressive American producer Prokosch (Jack Palance) is having none of it.
As Piccoli is drawn into the production, tensions arise between him and his
wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) and the other members of the production.



But that storyline is only the
thread on which Godard strings his real story, which is about filmmaking
itself. Introverted, convoluted with poetic references and self-referential
tricks of light and sound, Contempt makes a statement about the demands
of creativity and the line between valid artistic compromise and craven
capitulation. The dialogue shifts among French, English, and German (often in
the same conversation) with the figure of the translator (Giorgia Moll) playing
a key role. This linguistic mélange mirrors the adaptations that occur when a
book is turned into a film, as Homer's poem is in the film-within-a-film and as
Alberto Moravia's novel is in Contempt itself.



More than just
self-referential, Contempt is self-involved, reflexive, offering very
little for the viewer to take hold of in order to engage with the film. And
indeed that seems to have been Godard's intention: to create a film that
provided an ironic commentary on the very process of moviemaking itself, as
well as rebuffing the expectations of the average moviegoer. The producers (and
audience) expected to see a sex scene with star Brigitte Bardot naked. Very well:
Godard provides it, but in such a way as to undercut the desire for it. We get
a clinical shot of Bardot sprawled across a bed, idly discussing her own body
with her lover. Colored filters distance us even more from what's on screen,
emphasizing that the film itself is mediating between us and Bardot.



Contempt is loaded to
the gills with references to the cinema culture of the times and to literary
works, and it's deeply imbued with a theoretical perspective. Being reasonably
well versed in literary theory, I found it interesting to see the theatrical
expressions of some of the French theories I'd grappled with in graduate
school, such as Derrida's deconstructionism, which attacks the very structures
of meaning within a text, and the fascination with desire that we see in
critics like Foucault. In making the "film within the film" an
adaptation of the Odyssey, it seems clear that Godard is paying homage
not just to other films, but also to James Joyce's radical novel Ulysses.
Ulysses does in print exactly what Godard does in film: highlights
structure over content, subverts the conventions of the genre, calls attention
to itself, and constantly challenges the reader.



Well, as it happens I actively
dislike Joyce. (Yes, I have read Joyce; he's pretty much impossible to avoid
studying at some point in the course of getting a Ph.D. in English literature.
To know him, however, is definitely not to love him in my case.) I'm also not a
particular enthusiast of the approach of theorists like Derrida and Foucault. In
my opinion, innovation and creative expression don't require the abandonment of
traditional storytelling elements, and a film is stronger when it re-envisions
rather than removes these elements. 



To take as an example the
subject of the film-within-a-film in Contempt, Homer's Odyssey
itself can be read on many levels: as a meditation on fidelity, on the
relationship between man and the gods, or even man's connection to his home and
family. It's structured with a sophisticated framing narrative, beginning
"in medias res" and unfolding the story of Odysseus simultaneously
with the story of his son Telemachus and his wife Penelope. Yet it's also a
rousing adventure tale, full of tension and excitement as Odysseus overcomes
one obstacle after another in his quest to return to Ithaca. However, the way
Godard handles Contempt suggests that he believes the presence of such a
surface story detracts from the deeper meaning; that the audience's potential
to engage emotionally and viscerally with the story would prevent the film from
reaching its higher aims of making a statement on the creative process.



Yet, though I don't appreciate
Godard's approach on a visceral level, Contempt is undeniably a complex
and rich film. I admit to having bounced off it on my first attempt to view it;
without the context of knowing Godard's style or that of New Wave French
cinema, I had entirely the wrong expectations. On a second try, and with the
help of the extremely good commentary track by film scholar Robert Stam, I
found that Contempt transformed itself into an intellectually very
interesting film. In fact I'd suggest that any interested viewers who are
coming to the film for the first time watch it with the commentary track on for
the first viewing, to provide the context necessary to approach the film.



The DVD



Video



The Criterion transfer of Contempt
is very well done, showing the 1963 film in a pleasingly restored transfer. The
film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and is anamorphically
enhanced. Contempt is a highly colorful film, and the transfer handles
the colors admirably, with both primary and pastel colors appearing strong and
clear in the print. Some colors showed slight distortion during scene
transitions, but apart from that, even the brightest colors are clean and show
no bleeding. Contrast is likewise very well handled, with both brightly-lit and
dark scenes showing appropriate amounts of detail.



Comparison to the footage in
the trailer shows that the restoration did quite a lot of clean-up. The image
is very clean, with essentially no noise and only a few small speckles in the
print. I did notice the presence of edge enhancement, and a moderate amount of
grain in some scenes, but especially considering the age of the film, it looks
truly excellent in this DVD transfer.



Sound



Contempt is presented in
its original mono French soundtrack, with optional English subtitles. Being a
mono track, it's very restricted in terms of depth, but audio purists will
point out that we're hearing it as we would have heard it in the theater.



The main fault that I find in
the soundtrack is the balance between music and dialogue; too often, the music
is overly loud and obscures the dialogue. To a certain extent, this was
apparently Godard's intention: by having some of the dialogue very faint, he
forces the viewer to pay close attention. Still, I don't think that the audio
track handles the balance of the different sound elements as well as it ought
to.



In terms of general sound
quality, Contempt comes in with good marks. The track overall is clean
and free of both background noise and distortion, and the haunting music score
is rich-sounding.



Extras



Contempt is packaged in
a double-wide case containing two DVDs. Accompanying the film on the first disc
is a full-length audio commentary by film scholar Robert Stam. Though he is
clearly reading from a prepared text, Stam's commentary follows the on-screen
action closely, and his comments correspond to the appropriate scene in the
film. Stam offers valuable insights into Godard's style and exactly what he's
doing in the film; by pointing out specific examples of the film's
self-referentiality, Godard's manipulation of cinematic conventions, and key
symbolic and thematic elements, Stam makes Contempt a more accessible
and richer viewing experience for the viewer.



The second disc contains the
supplemental material for the film, mainly promotional and interview material
from the 1960s. All of the special features are presented in their original
language (usually French) with English subtitles. It's actually not possible to
turn off the subtitles "on the fly", but they can be turned off by
selecting "off" from the subtitles section in the special features
menu.



"The Dinosaur and the
Baby" (1967) is the longest individual special feature, running sixty
minutes. Unfortunately, it's rather annoying to watch, as there is no sound
provided. We see Godard having a conversation with Fritz Lang, but all the
content is carried by the subtitles. "Encounter with Fritz Lang,"
"Bardot et Godard," and "Paparazzi" are all short
featurettes filmed in 1963 as Contempt itself was being filmed; all
three are slightly promotional in nature, offering behind-the-scenes footage of
the film along with some interviews and comments on the creation of the film.
"Bardot et Godard" is mostly generic behind-the-scenes footage;
"Paparazzi" is interesting in that it focuses on Bardot as the
superstar of the time, attracting hordes of nuisance tourists to the set; and
"Encounter" has some worthwhile footage of Godard discussing the
film. The last piece of contemporary material is a ten-minute interview with
Godard, filmed in 1964 for the French television show Cinepanorama; Godard
discusses various aspects of the film and the publicity surrounding it. All of
these featurettes are black and white, and are of acceptable image quality:
rather worn, but watchable.



An interview with
cinematographer Raoul Coutard is of more recent vintage; no date is given, but
it appears to have been conducted for the DVD version or a recent video
release. In this twenty-six-minute piece, Coutard discusses his beginnings as a
cinematographer along with thoughts on Godard and Bardot.



Lastly, Criterion has included
a five-minute "widescreen vs. full-frame" demonstration, which shows
exactly how much of the 2.35:1 image was chopped off to create earlier
pan-and-scan video releases of the film. It's dramatic evidence of how the
pan-and-scan process mutilates the director's artistic vision and diminishes
the visual effect of the film. The original trailer for the film is included as
well.



Final thoughts



With an excellent transfer and
a substantial amount of special features, Contempt is a DVD not to be
missed for viewers who already know the film or Godard's other work. Speaking
for myself, Contempt isn't the kind of film I would ordinarily enjoy for
itself, but with the commentary on, I found it very interesting on an
intellectual level. My overall response to Contempt was favorable, and
for viewers who are unfamiliar with the avant-garde style but are ready to take
on a challenging film, Contempt, with its outstanding commentary track,
is recommended.

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