Written by: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, Giorgia Moll, Fritz Lang
Intellectual exercises in the abstract allow for philosophical discussions about the world but rarely do they ever embrace the humanity around them. Hypotheticals upon other hypotheticals can reach larger ideas, but how can any of it matter when we ignore the tangibility of others sitting right next to us. Contempt presents this unfortunate ideal when a couple begins to drift apart.
Given the opportunity of a lifetime, young playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) gets invited to help punch up a movie made by an American producer (Jack Palance) and legendary director Fritz Lang. With this excellent opportunity, this venture proves to further wedge a marriage in peril as he drifts away from his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot).
Heading into any Jean-Luc Godard film comes with plenty of prep on my part to see some incredibly self-indulgent work. Some do it better than others, but Godard has his own brand of filmmaking one must really vibe with to enjoy but his films easily garner my respect. Similarly to Breathless, I found myself respecting the craft of Contempt rather than the actual story put forth. The camera movement and the daring shots utilized demonstrate why he was one of the leading forces in the French New Wave, but the story does not truly measure up to his style and aesthetic.
At the center of the story, we have this couple, who evidently have had their issues in the past, and this new opportunity for Paul accelerates an unavoidable fate for the two. Standing between them is the arrogance of this man and how he views the relationship with his wife. She becomes someone to be at his side or else, which makes the events set to transpire in the film to make complete sense. Of course, he would take on a project that would divide him and his wife, because Paul only cares for himself and what this opportunity could do for his career.
While taking the job does display a level of selfishness, it does come as a wonderful opportunity, as he gets to help course correct a movie being put together and directed by Fritz Lang. Portraying himself in the film, Lang famously directed some of the most iconic cinematic works in history in M and Metropolis. Getting the chance to work alongside this man and possibly fix the movie he’s working on may be intimidating for some, but it becomes a challenge Paul has no problem taking on. He eventually learns the core issue happening between Land and the American producer, which occurs in every movie studio today.
Art vs. commerce feels like such a headbanging circumstance, but ultimately it’s a large factor in what can get made. Every industry runs on the bottom line at the end of the day and both of these characters represent a side of this ongoing battle. It’s also quite funny who was chosen to represent these ideas, with the cynical American being the one obsessed with the financial aspect of this film while a legendary director like Lang displays the more artistic side. Godard really did not hide his true feelings on the matter evidently with these portrayals. The battle between the two puts Paul right in the middle of it all, which makes his decision to side with one over the other ultimately an indictment of how he sees art. However, the more interesting depiction of this battle comes from observing Camille.
I always find the female characters of Godard films to be far more fascinating to analyze rather than their male counterparts. Typically, the masculine characters are shrouded by a level of arrogance that gets exhausting to parse through, but the women always have something under the surface. Camille serves as an object for the men in this story, but she also fights for her level of agency. As the story progresses, she garners a level of power because of the relationship she has with Paul. The way the camera ogles her reflects the typical tendencies of Godard, but her character weaves through these men in a manner where she does wield some sort of individuality, even more so than Paul. Brigitte Bardot’s performance certainly helps because of her captivating presence on screen.
Contempt, overall, has substance within its story about the focus of ideas and the battle between art and commerce. There’s plenty to appreciate in this film but Godard continues to frustrate me as a filmmaker because of how he puts together his stories. On a visual level, this film carries some striking imagery, which you should expect from a director with this level of skill but something remains missing for me to fully love his work.