Jean-Luc Godard's 'Contempt' Returns To The Big Screen
The impact and vitality of Jean-Luc Godard's body of work from 1959 through 1967 almost goes without saying when discussing any of his films from the Nouvelle vague period of his career. Beginning with Breathless, which hit with the force of a comet to wipe out the cinematic dinosaurs of the French cinema's "Tradition of Quality," and all the way up to the self-proclaimed "fin de cinema" of Week End, Godard's fifteen-film stretch from this era stands almost like a Velvet Underground & Nico of movies: their influence and stature outranks their actual public familiarity. With the 50th anniversary restoration of Contempt reaching theaters in L.A. this week, it's a perfect chance for newcomers to dive in.
Almost all of these films share characteristics that make them distinctly Godardian: their radical politics, constant breaking of the fourth wall, the jump cuts (ohh, the jump cuts), and constant stream of references, to name a few. The slapdash, utter disregard for the form and content of what is traditionally considered a movie alone makes them exciting to watch at a visceral level. Sticking out like a sore thumb, though, within this oeuvre is Contempt, generally considered to be the closest Godard ever came to making a 'straightforward' film. For once working with a sizable budget, big movie stars, and shooting in stately CinemaScope in a locale as scenic as Capri, a Godard film never felt so majestic. It seemed like the tendencies of the enfant terrible of the French New Wave were finally reigned in.
And while Contempt may not be rife with jump cuts or Marxist screeds, it very well may be the most Godardian of Godard's works, if only for how personal it clearly is. Standing in for Godard is Michel Piccoli as Paul, a small-time writer offered a big-time job by a sleazy movie producer (Jack Palance, as the ugliest of Ugly Americans) to re-write the script of a floundering production of Homer's Odyssey (directed by Fritz Lang, playing himself). Paul must juggle his conflicted feelings of artistic integrity versus accepting money from The Man, while at the same time trying to salvage his marriage with his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). When Bardot dons the the raven-haired pixie-cut wig, it becomes more than obvious that Camille is a stand-in for Anna Karina.
Contempt becomes less about the struggle to maintain artistic integrity and more a mournful elegy to a marriage that couldn't withstand the inattentiveness of a man so consumed with his own work. Methodically, through the masterful 30-minute argument we witness as the entirety of the film's second act, Bardot's Camille becomes Godard's most tragic character, a bystander that his own undying love of cinema couldn't get out of the way of. Godard and Karina would divorce in 1967.
The 50th anniversary restoration of Contempt opens at Laemmle's Royal (West L.A.) and Playhouse 7 (Pasadena) tomorrow.