Video Essay. Coming Apart: Jean-Luc Godard’s "Contempt"

How an early scene in "Contempt" encapsulates the feeling that the film sits nervously astride two eras: the classical and the modernist.
Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin

The 27th entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI is showing Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963) December 24, 2017 - January 23, 2018 in the United States as part of the retrospective For Ever Godard.The challenge of composing any decent history of film style is to account for, and accurately annotate, its transformations. And this is an especially acute challenge when we find ourselves in a transit-lounge that overlaps different periods—such as the 1960s, when classical mise en scène became something which could be rejected wholesale, but also referenced, cited, evoked—and thereby bracketed, problematized, and merrily interfered with. There are many sly ways in which the modernist cinema of the 1960s played with strategies of narrative and mise en scène. 

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) there is an early scene, set in the villa garden of the movie producer Prokosch (Jack Palance), which encapsulates the feeling that the film sits nervously, but knowingly, astride eras—on the one side, the classical era of mise en scène, especially as it had evolved with color and widescreen in the 1950s (say, in the films of Vincente Minnelli); and, on the other side, the modernist era of which Godard himself was such a prominent figurehead.  

Accordingly, there are two very different ways in which this scene can be (and has been) evoked in critical analyses: either it is read as an entirely conventional, seamless, psychological scene of character interaction; or it is seized upon for its supposedly Brechtian interruptions and effects of audience-alienation. This is an understandable bifurcation in critical response because, in fact, the scene seems to invite both readings simultaneously.

But our analysis of such a rich film should not be a rigid, either/or proposition. It remains for us, almost 55 years on from Contempt’s initial release, to fully grasp Godard’s modernist gestures, poised between a fullness of mythic and classical meaning, and the possibilities of a newly fragmented universe of signs. 

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