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Contempt (Le mépris): Criterion Collection
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 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.
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.
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.
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.