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The World as One: Close-Up on Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”

The most modern of movie directors looks to antiquity as a couple of his own time falls from grace.
Blake Lucas
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (1963) is showing December 24, 2017 - January 23, 2018 in the United States as part of the retrospective For Ever Godard.
One thing most commonly and justly admired in Contempt (1963) by the many who revere the film is its singular place on the dividing line in cinema between classicism and modernism.  The 1960s, and most intensely in mid-decade, was a transitional time for these phases, one that of course should never be simplified because of the many instances in which classical directors looked ahead with modernist impulses or modern directors (like the New Wave coterie of which Jean-Luc Godard was a part) looked back with longing to what had gone before.  Among so many movies that affirm this point, it’s enough to cite Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954), a touchstone for modern cinema, which it anticipated (though without wide recognition on first release). It is also a film directly related to Contempt, both in blurring the classical/modernist line and in its treatment of marital discord (and in its nod to antiquity, as well), and pointedly given a direct reference within Godard’s movie.
It is within the context of the special place accorded it for “end of classical cinema” grace and “embrace of modern cinema” adventurousness that I want to look at one specific aspect of Contempt, really a brief but crucial moment that crystallizes that aspect, and consider how Godard imposes himself as an artist there in a way that is different than he has generally chosen over the course of a long career. 
But that calls for an immediate cautionary note.  In so many ways, Contempt is at one with Godard’s whole career—if his deepest impulse may always have been to be a kind of cinematic essayist more than a dramatist, he also loves dialectical play on every level.  So his choice of an Alberto Moravia novel (A Ghost at Noon, 1954) here may have given him just what he wanted for this film—essentially a marital melodrama, although the realized movie as an organic whole transforms this into something far beyond what the novel ever imagined, a work that at once is willing to effectively suggest The Oydssey of Homer as its actual source and model in a way the novel really did not (though both works involve a movie being made from that work), but at the same time to deconstruct something so epic as this is, self-consciously revealing the artistic process.
All of this begins immediately.  Francesca Vanini (Giorgia Moll) is seen walking forward slowly on the street reading and being filmed in a tracking shot—one of the movie’s signatures—as we see the camera filming this, Raoul Coutard himself there behind it (while the credits are, unusually, given in voiceover).   In so many ways, this strategy of distancing will continue—for example, in color filters over scenes, shots of masks and statuary evoking Ancient Greece, more literary allusions and quotations than most real people would ever give voice to within a few relatively brief time frames.  With its self-consciousness and these distancing devices, Contempt truly is a modern film, at least more than it is ever a classical one.
Yet at the same time, there is counterpoint to that.  The stately tracking shots and elegantly staged and composed long shots that make up so much of it seem deliberately to want to recall older cinematic traditions (also evoked in abundant references to great movies that preceded this one), while the Georges Delerue music, already sounding eternal, suffuses that first frame.  The first full scene between writer Paul (Michel Piccoli) and his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) is melodramatized, not by the light yet touching verbal display of sexual affection between them, but by the bold changes of color and further music, the second of the two principal motifs of Delerue’s score. 
Within this opening reel, the profound tension of the film, which will be sustained to the end, is revealed.  It is a tension created with distance at every turn—but against that, suspension of disbelief that will involve the viewer emotionally with the characters still occurs, to stinging effect.  So, modern this work may be, but its creator cannot help but interrogate that even in the midst of deconstruction.  One is drawn in to something that winds up having a power one would not expect were one simply to describe it.
Essentially, the film divides into three acts of about equal length (around 35 minutes including brief transitional scenes): the first, following the opening bedroom scene, mostly involves all the characters, producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), director Fritz Lang (Fritz Lang) and interpreter Francesca as well as the married couple, first at Cinecittà where scenes from the film in progress are seen and then at Jerry’s home; the second, a long scene in Paul and Camille’s apartment in which the marital discord born in the first part becomes serious; and the third on Capri, where all the characters again interact and there is a kind of resolution to the dramatic conflicts.
It’s the second act—and specifically its climax—which I want to focus on, just for what it reveals about the complex nature that a work of art can have.  In the first act, the notion of antagonism—and contempt itself—is initially felt between Prokosch and Lang (Paul, showing something of the weakness that spurs the main conflict, should defend Lang, an artist he admires, right away, but doesn’t do it)—and it’s pretty painful, if dramatically compelling, to see a director like Lang treated this way.  Then, Paul casually encourages Camille to go on with Prokosch to his house in his little red Alfa Romeo.  Something happens before he himself arrives.  I don’t believe anyone who knows the film could say exactly what that is, and I feel it is perhaps best not to know; my sense is that it may not have been physical but was somehow worse.   
Then, in the second act, tension develops between Paul and Camille, climaxing in her revelation that he has somehow killed her love for him.  He becomes physical with her about this and she responds by violently slapping him.  This stunning confrontation between them is filmed like so much of the movie at enough distance that one can fully appreciate the choreography of the two actor’s bodies as well as their verbal expressions, and wonderfully realized by Bardot and Piccoli.  It releases the accumulated tension which then very briefly plays out with the camera mostly in motion through a few brief shots as Paul follows Camille out and she turns to express, several times, that she has contempt for him.  The start of the following transition takes place inside a cab where they are riding to a theatre to meet the others, and Godard again makes a dramatic change, abruptly darkening the image as he focuses on Camille’s hurt expression.   This return of aesthetic distance is continued in the treatment of the following audition scene in a theatre, and yet it has no effect on how emotionally absorbed the viewer has become; the moment of physical violence and especially her slapping of him is so startlingly visceral for the essentially reflective work that this is. 
And that’s the fascinating and instructive lesson to be had as we contemplate whether a modernist frame can still sustain a classically constructed narrative.  There’s lots of marital and other romantic or relationship conflicts in movies before this one, but I would argue that not even in the greatest 1950s melodramas did anyone do it better than Godard does in these few moments and in this scene. 
No matter what his actual greatest interest may have been—and I believe that probably the challenge of finding classicism within a modern structure may have been what consciously appealed to this lover of contradiction—Godard here simply did the job of understanding and bringing to life profound emotional dynamics, a job that might be given to any mainstream director.   It’s hard not to feel that beneath the complex intellect that makes the film what it is, there was a painful sensitivity to the potentially disturbed side of male/female relationships and especially, even given an apparent ambivalence about women in so much of Godard’s work, an awareness that in an intelligent man, ego could mask tragic weakness in not understanding what a woman most deeply needs from him.
That is what is so movingly felt as the Paul/Camille story here plays out, Paul almost perversely repeating what caused the original breakdown when they are in Capri.  As Contempt ends, Odysseus looks out over the ocean to see his homeland of Ithaca where Penelope waits, while the departing Paul, who had already lost Camille, must now mourn her as well after her death.  And yet, in the final image of quiet sea and sky the two couples, so different and of different worlds, seem movingly reconciled in a way mirrored by the film’s own reconciliation of classicism and modernism.  All are together in the cathartic stillness of eternity. 


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