Le Mepris or Contempt was director and co-leader of the French New Wave, Jean Luc Godard’s first contribution to the American Film Industry. For the producers it was supposed to be many things; another vehicle for 60s sex icon Brigitte Bardot; a money maker; a crowd catcher of the American people. It was successful at all of these objectives, but not in the way they might’ve anticipated. It was never going to be so simple with Godard. This is as compromising as an American backed French New Wave film would get – but the cards were never out of Godard’s rebellious, crafty hands.
In dealing with his first American financed production, he made it exactly about that – Americans financing a production. And from Godard, Paul was created. Paul is sought after by American producer Jeremy Prokosh to change an intellectual, art driven film into a commercial, blockbuster product. And when you start with that angle, it’s easy to see how Contempt is a personal film for Godard. What goes on behind the camera? Does it change what’s inside the frame? And, in this case, what can we see on both sides of the screen?
Without the labyrinthine meta narrative, Contempt is, in essence, a lavish, grandiose questioning of man’s struggle to understand. What you might take away from Godard’s meditation on the nature of understanding is that it’s often a difficulty or problem for a variety of reasons. But that it mostly comes down to the game of knowing and not knowing – to which this is a meticulous exemplar of the frustration of the latter.
Your frame of mind is wildly important to absorbing a director’s vision. Without it, you’re not truly navigating the same territory because Godard’s framing of the film is designed around introducing the end goal of the themes. Language barriers, production method, motive, intent and philosophy, and a general inconsideration towards others, these problems lead everyone herein to struggle to understand their counterpart. What’s fascinating on a deeper level is how Godard takes just two artful, efficient minutes to lay the groundwork for you to take away a meta meaning from this group of themes.
The picture opens with a fake production. A narrator dictates the roles of the cast and crew (always referring to the film as “it”), and as he does, a camera crew film an unidentifiable woman walking down a film studio backlot. What film are they filming? Well, it’s not yet clear but you’re watching a staged production of/behind Contempt.
As we look through Godard’s unmoving camera, the crew move closer. They follow the woman closer, growing on our screen. At this point, Godard tilts up to capture not the woman but the camera, in a perfect frame (note that the camera operator is Godard himself). It might seem that the narrator is introducing you to the film but to Godard you are being introduced to the production. In this moment you are not yet watching Contempt.
Then the camera rotates to face our direction and gaze through the screen. Cut to: the married couple in bed. In a few simple beats and a voice over, Godard has positioned you beside him, ready to watch the stage-show from behind his curtain.
Paul’s (our protagonist) dilemma pivots on Fritz Lang’s (played by the man himself) fictional film adaptation of Homer’s “Odyssey”. The three central characters and film-makers watch and then discuss their interpretations on the dailies for “The Odyssey”. Here, you can see Paul becoming the audience.
The scene is framed as though there is a mirror between them and the audience, like they’re looking to the same screen. In it, Lang’s interpretation of Odysseus’ journey home from Troy strangely, uncannily resonates with Paul and his own struggles with his wife at home. To go one step further, Godard’s vision on how the audience watches film might resonate with those seeing themselves on the other side of the screen.
And so, each watch Lang’s film and then read themselves into the text – interpreting the original material’s meaning.
Paul interprets himself into original material’s meaning while Jeremy differs in his understanding of its intention, pushing Lang and Paul in a more commercial non-interpretive direction. This is Paul’s battle to believe in film as an interpreted medium or to ignore it and prefer commercialism. And then there you are, watching them watching film. All the while knowing that the camera filming them has also seen you. Should you then read yourself into its text, a text of you and itself? This is Godard, the nature of film making was sure to come up.
It is a mystifying way of introducing us to Godard’s point of view: to first see the film distanced from its production, with a hint of reproach. Though the camera filming Contempt turns to see us, we are not physically seen in the final cut, yet we are conscious that the film has seen us, so we too will find the urge to look for ourselves in the film just as Paul sees himself in “The Odyssey”.
Watching Contempt becomes a self-aware act of understanding and of finally knowing. And in the end, both us and Paul get answers on our interpretations.
Godard concealed this process from the audience under the illusion of a comprehensible narrative which uses the bond of marriage to intensify and express his theme. A story could easily, and maybe should, defy the director’s hovering themes and notions. But instead of one way or the other, we got both. Consider the cake truly had and eaten.
Picture the producers giving him the same “You cheated me Fritz!” tantrum whenever they saw half of these scenes. Regardless of his backers, or perhaps more so, Godard was as rebellious as ever. He knew exactly what he was doing with Brigitte Bardot, her de-eroticized nudity and a 34 minute argument in their apartment – giving the producers exactly what they wanted, and none of it at all.
Godard hated making this, and that’s what makes the film even better. This is an essay which bleeds into its characters and it’s Godard’s most commercially successful film ever, and then Godard never made a film this way again. Everything about it gave it the widest audience possible, it had Bardot’s name, Godard’s name, Lang’s cameo, the big American production and more. And the result of all this is that under Godard’s wing, we can share his view on America’s money-minded film industry from behind its thinly veiled curtain – and this is what he sold them.