[Note: I posted a short follow-up to the post that reflects a more positive viewing experience shortly after writing this review. At the time of this writing (6/1/2012), I would say I'm even more positive on the film than this review suggests, and that it is now one of my favorites by the director.]
Contempt is a film of wild contradictions. Godard mocked its source-material, Alberto Moravia's Il disprezzo, yet he follows its plot with more loyalty that he does the source material within the source, Homer's Odyssey. He disdains any attempt to explain the film's largely uneventful plot through psychology, yet his take on the material clearly reflects aspects of his personal life. It contains a misogyny that I'm finding disturbingly prevalent in his work, yet, of the three Godard films I've seen so far, it is the only one to put a human stake on its sexism and give the woman a chance to defend herself.
Its protagonist, Paul (Michel Piccoli) is a low-paid screenwriter with a receding hairline and a stunning wife, Camille Javal (Bridgette Bardot). Once an author of detective fiction, he took the screenwriting gig for the money. Ironically, he's not really selling out by leaving behind writing pulp novels to pen an adaptation of The Odyssey for one of the greatest of film directors, Fritz Lang (playing himself). But Camille mentions that she misses the old Paul, and he retorts that he only took the job to pay for the apartment for the two of them.
Camille turns on him after spending time with Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), the lascivious, obscene producer of Lang's film. She reacts coldly to his small-talk and shoots down his attempts to soften her up with a movie or a lunch and asks that they return to their apartment. I've learned by now to wait with bated breath for Jean-Luc Godard to take his camera inside an apartment; my favorite moments of both Breathless and Le Petit Soldat occurred in apartments and, true to form, the highlight of Contempt plays out in the couple's impressive flat. For 30 minutes, they move from room to room, arguing, reconciling and splintering once more. Paul's desperate attempts to make things right (despite having no clue what he's done wrong) make him sympathetic, but Camille delivers some justifiable reasons for her anger without ever directly stating them.
Here's where the dissonance between Godard's typical sexism and the deeper meaning of Bardot's character begins, as she gently subverts the stereotype of the blond ditz. Before, she indirectly "competed" for Paul with his translator, the brunette Francesca, who can not only speak four languages but discuss the poetry of Höberlin with Lang, and Camille dons a black wig in their apartment to look more intelligent to her husband. Through her cold shoulder, she brings out his paternalism and the vacuity with which he attempts to analyze her. He explains her behavior through materialism, via the apartment, through flightiness and other condescending conclusions, and for all his sincerity and likability, Paul gradually displays the traits that would lead someone who had to spend an extended amount of time with him crazy.
In that sense, perhaps Camille comes to stand in for Homer's Penelope, a allusion visually hinted at through contrasting images of Lang's footage of a naked woman swimming in the sea meant to be Penelope and a nearly identical shot near the end of Camille skinnydipping in the same area. I recently re-read The Odyssey for a World Literature course, and was struck by how hard it is to get a read of that character. On one hand, she could be a feminist's nightmare, an image of a woman incapably of functioning without her husband, whose primary action across the epic is to return to her room and cry herself to sleep. Yet she's also cunning and resourceful, capable of staving off the advances of suitors for a decade. In this version of The Odyssey, Odysseus actually sells his wife to the suitors -- the check Prokosch gives Paul before taking Camille home with him is clearly as much for the woman as it is for his screenplay -- and what we're seeing here is Penelope's reaction to losing the faith that kept her going. Camille perfectly understands what Paul doesn't, and in this context her revulsion is instantly justifiable. One could also compare Camille to Anna Karina -- highlighted by her use of the black wig -- and cinematographer Raoul Coutard might hold the key to unlocking the film when he calls it Godard's "love letter" to her; I can't yet say if Godard's sexism surfaces again in later films, but Contempt occasionally moves closer than its CinemaScope objective distance and shows an artist attempting to apologize for his mindset.
The couple's argument in the apartment is so revealing and powerful that, as with his other films, some of the magic dissipates when they finally go outside again. Though Prokosch motivates their spat, the subplot of Lang's production never jells smoothly with the crumbling marriage. Prokosch, with his arrogant disdain for the artistic process, clearly stands as the Poseidon of the film, for Paul and Lang. Near the beginning, Prokosch rants to Paul, via Francesca, about Lang's refusal to simply make a marketable film, but he has no suggestions of his own to offer. "Producers never now what they want," drawls Paul in response to the feckless sleaze. Interesting Lang, with his vaguely threatening Teutonic poise (complete with deliciously jaunty monocle), is the straight man of the film, the exasperated artist who attempts to make the film he wants to make as his screenwriter self-destructs and his producer throws tantrums because the director shot scenes as they were written, but in a way that made them art, not mass entertainment.
That contrast is perhaps the biggest of the film, or at least the one dearest to Godard, who, until this film fizzled at the box office, was being inexorably pushed into mainstream filmmaking. The walls of Contempt, set in a Rome that's eerily vacant, are mostly stark white, and Godard places primary-colored objects in front them. He especially likes to use red and blue, which form the three colors of both the French and American flags: one could interpret this as Paul (and Godard's) choice between sticking to arthouse filmmaking (as evidenced by the use of multiple languages through translators, thus making English dubbing difficult) and mass-entertainment.
This internal conflict is further symbolized by Prokosch here the doppelgänger Contempt's producer Joseph E. Levine, who butted heads with Godard throughout the production. Levine wanted a nude scene in the film to capitalize on Bardot's popularity, so Godard simply tacked one onto the beginning, subverting it by shifting focus from simple lust into a discussion in which Camille asks Paul if he finds various body parts of hers attractive. Ergo, it becomes about insecurity and what makes us lust, a nude scene that asks us why we like nude scenes. In a projection room, Lang speaks aloud Godard's distaste for having to shoot the film in CinemaScope (perhaps the film's lack of human connection can be attributed to Godard using CinemaScope's magnificence against itself): "It wasn't made for people," he sneers, "It's only good for snakes and funerals." The film's eventual financial failure may have spoiled Godard's chances for making bigger films, but the director sows clues throughout the picture that he would like nothing better than to skirt Hollywood's advances.
As with he did with his other features, Godard uses Contempt to dissect the cinema as a whole: its opening credits sequence, delivered with a voiceover narration listing the production credits and giving a brief synopsis of what is to come, depicts Raoul Coutard tracking actors until he reaches the end of the dolly track and turns his camera to look directly into the camera shooting the credits sequence. That shot, of Godard gazing into the camera headlong, serves as perhaps the easiest summary of his early work, and also what I find so myopic about it. I freely admit that Godard's range of knowledge is incredible; his deep understanding of poetry, classical art and philosophy will almost certainly embarrass me as I continue to work through his filmography largely unfamiliar with the majority of references I come across in connection with his movies. But there's nothing in Contempt that speaks to a larger truth than the artist's frustrations with business and romance.Once again, I find myself torn with a Godard film, wowed by his inventiveness and his ability to make the scenes rooted in one location the most vibrant of all, but I'm always interested to see how such an astronomically clever man always manages to think himself even cleverer. I always want to smack Godard after finishing one of his movies, but I also want to head straight to the library afterward. That's gotta count for something, right? And for all my continuing frustrations, Contempt shows the most of Godard the human being I've yet seen, and while I do not prefer it to either Breathless or Le Petit Soldat, I am more interested than ever in sticking to my commitment to consume his corpus.