Le Mepris



aka Contempt : France (Fr/Ity) 1963 : Jean-Luc GODARD : 104 mins

Film about infidelity are usually much more rewarding and cathartic for those taking part – movie directors and actors being a relatively oft-married, promiscuous bunch – than for the audiences: Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is a good recent example. With Le Mepris, the mini-genre’s recurring problems are compounded by this being such an uncharacteristic project for the iconoclastic Godard.

Usually described as his most expensive and orthodox picture, it’s the (apparently quite faithful) adaptation of the novel A Ghost At Noon by Alberto Moravia – a writer who seldom strayed close to literature’s cutting edge – and features big stars from both sides of the Atlantic: the then-reigning sex-kitten Brigitte Bardot, and Hollywood refugee Jack Palance.

They form two sides of a triangle of love, hate and suspicion completed by Michel Piccoli as Javal, a scriptwriter hired by Palance’s brash Hollywood producer to work on an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey being filmed by Fritz Lang (as himself) at Rome’s Cinecitta studios. Bardot is Javal’s wife, Camille, who may or may not be succumbing to Palance’s flashy charms – Javal isn’t sure how to interpret his partner’s on-off displays of frosty contempt. Their on-set dealings are smoothed by interpreter (Giorgia Moll), who provides instant (though not always accurate) translations for the monoglot film-makers.

Having so many lines said twice doesn’t make for a fast-moving picture – but things really bog down during a mid-section set in the Javal’s rented Rome apartment. Godard is fond of such dialogue-heavy ‘apartment’ sequences – but this one is interminable, with none of the energy that drives equivalent passages in the likes of Breathless (1959) or A Woman Is A Woman (1961). It seems Godard isn’t especially interested in the Javal relationship – the couple feel like pawns in some cerebral, solipsistic game being conducted off-camera by the writer-director.

He’s perhaps more concerned with making clever statements about film itself – the movie-making process is the subject of his striking first and last shots. But even then, Godard’s his attitude towards his chosen medium feels like one of, ahem, contempt. ‘Cinema is an invention without a future’ is emblazoned across the bottom of the screen at a Cinecitta screening room – apparently a quotation from cinema’s inventor August Lumiere, it’s a proposition with which, watching Le Mepris, Godard seems to whole-heartedly agree.

By so airily deconstructing the elements which go towards making a film (acting, music, camera movement) Godard produces a rather sterile, uninvolving, academic exercise. And even though cinematographer Raoul Coutard makes some dazzling use of the wide-screen ‘Franscope’ image in the second half when the ‘action’ moves to a brightly-coloured Capri, the latter stages see the tedium mount as Godard indulges in pseudo-philosophical dialogue that’s really no more than verbose tail-chasing. Luckily, his often-overlooked gift for comedy is as sharp as ever here, when he condescends to deploy it: a frustrated Palance picks up a can of film and flings it, discus-like, across the Cinecitta screening room – “At last,” purrs Lang, “you show an affinity for Greek culture.”

15th July, 2003
(seen 11th July : National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford)

by Neil Young