Jean Luc-Godard’s tragic tale of the death of a marriage returns to cinemas
A timeless tale of the death of love, told amidst ruins, 1963’s Le Mépris (Contempt) is French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard’s most accessible work and one of his most personally revealing. Based on Alberto Moravia’s novel A Ghost at Noon but with bonus autobiographical detail, it finds a relationship unravelling on and around the set of a film, exploring Godard’s thoughts on his own tumultuous marriage and his love-hate relationship with Hollywood.
Set in Italy, Le Mépris follows screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) as he’s asked to rework the script for a new version of Homer’s Odyssey to suit the more commercial tastes of sleazebag American producer Prokosch (Jack Palance), who takes a shine to Paul’s young wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot – at the height of her stardom, craving credibility), an insecure, capricious woman both dangerously drawn and seemingly pushed towards the fateful liaison. Austrian auteur Fritz Lang, playing himself, appears as the Odyssey’s director and the film’s resident sage.
Stunningly shot by regular Godard collaborator Raoul Coutard (who also worked on Demy’s Lola and Truffaut’s Jules et Jim), this apparent idyll is rendered suffocatingly sad by Georges Delerue’s iconic ‘Theme de Camille’, which was later pinched by Scorsese for Casino. And if Le Mépris lacks the uninhibited character of, say, Breathless, Pierrot le Fou, or Alphaville it undoubtedly makes up for it in emotional potency.
As was his wont during this period, Godard doffs his cap to Hollywood greats – Griffith, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Hawks, Ray – while critiquing the constraints under which they were forced to operate, this time with a personal agenda, since he was himself working under an American co-producer, Joseph E Levine. Godard’s genius is such that he manages to infuse what he considered to be artistic compromise with enough melancholy, cynicism and wit that the film still stands amongst his finest work. For example: forced to insert nude scenes of Bardot at his producers’ insistence, he rendered them satirical, craftily projecting the colours of the French flag onto her bare behind, as the screen turns blue, white then red.
Coutard believed that Godard was trying to speak directly to his then wife and regular collaborator Anna Karina with the film and, indeed, there’s much to support his reading: Bardot dons Karina’s Vivre Sa Vie wig (the poster for which appears prominently) and was encouraged to walk like her; Piccoli wore Godard’s own clothes and real exchanges between the couple reportedly appeared in the script. Le Mépris would of course anticipate the demise of the marriage several years later. Directing with a heavy heart, Godard manages to convey the terrible curse of being able to foresee one’s own unhappy ending.
Selected reissue from Fri 1 Jan.