Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Film Review: Contempt

Contempt was famed French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard first and only big budget film. Although given an ample budget and A list talent, Godard found the experience not to his liking and never again directed a major studio film, instead setting his focus on small independent features with which he could have complete artistic control. As such, the title, while it might be interpreted specifically to relate to the deteriorating marriage between screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and his beautiful wife Camille, here played by French sex symbol Brigitte Bardot, Contempt easily showcases Director Godard's extreme revulsion for the ceaseless demands of mainstream cinema. Several shots are filmed in exact imitation of the over-the-top grandiosity and overzealous pomposity common in overblown epics popular in American films during the early 1960's. The film's satirical jabs are both sly and subtle and only become evident to the audience by the end of the film. The hauntingly repetitive film score, which at first confuses viewers with its constant usage of the same passage throughout the movie, eventually is understood as making a serious critical point, specifically critiquing in American epic films the overuse of dramatic strings and other related wholly unnecessary histrionics.

The decision to film the movie both in color and in Cinemascope wide screen, the way a typical Hollywood epic would be shot, is further evidence of Godard's contempt. This time he's thumbing his nose at the expectation that artistic vision should be sacrificed for cheap theatrics, dumbed-down dialogue, and general lowest common denominator thinking. In keeping with his criticisms of the entire business, Godard was forced, post-production, to include a few shots of then hugely popular sex symbol Bardot in some state of undress. However, Godot only reveals a few modest views of her backside, a rather tame rendering for conventional films, proving that although the French auteur could be coerced under duress to add changes demanded by the studio, he would do them on his terms alone. Nudity throughout the movie is used as a bit of a tease, frustrating both studio brass and male viewers, who were obviously expecting much more.

Primarily, the film itself muses on the act of selling out. This is not an uncommon conflict in the life of an artist, visual or otherwise. Any talent who attains some degree of artistic success faces this identical dilemma. As a means of underscoring this exact point, I think my favorite moment in the film appears early on, when a young fan meets legendary German director Fritz Lang (here playing himself) and expresses her love for a rather pedestrian Western he directed starring Marlene Dietrich. He replies, "Well, I prefer M much better." M is, of course, Lang's landmark 1931 film, one routinely listed as one of the best films ever on critic's lists. I know exactly how he feels. While he would quite understandably prefer to be known for his greatest work, he is instead appreciated for a relative mediocrity the plebian fawn over, utterly ignorant of the director's superior efforts. In that spirit, American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) plays a tyrannical Hollywood producer who throws a fit in the screening room when the first cut of Lang's retelling of Homer's Odyssey proves to be far too much of an art film than a commercial effort. By the film's conclusion, in disgust Paul Javal leaves the production, telling the director and producer both that he is a playwright, not a screenwriter, and as such not up to the effort. Godard puts his own views of film theory into the mouth of Lang, emphasizing that the director ought to be left alone to create, without the interference of producers, studios, or the almighty dollar.

This production of The Odyssey appears ill-fated from the very beginning, since a good half of the film is devoted to the methodical unraveling of the marriage between Paul and his beautiful wife Camille. That event itself mirrors the kind of travails Godard himself was experiencing in his personal life with his wife and cinematic muse Anna Karina, who would both later divorce for good four years later. The main characters--Paul, Camille, and Prokosch loosely correspond to Odysseus, Penelope, and Poseidon which will be interesting for those who love Greek mythology. The middle of the film features some very creative camera work on the part of Godard, who frames the back and forth bantering of the screenwriter and his bride in a series of side to side tracking shots. Though the reason for the conflict is never fully explained, Camille eventually leaves her husband for the company of the American bigwig, whereby the both of them run into a major tragedy by the end of the film. In a film that forces the audience to accept its own peculiar cinematic world, it comes careening to a rather abrupt end that resolves absolutely nothing. The film itself is still in the process of filming, it's just that all the major players have left the set.

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