Le Mépris (Contempt) opens to the sound of Jean-Luc Godard reading the credits over the titles that appear on screen which sets the scene for the opening of his film. Always inventive with his credits, such as with Pierrot Le Fou where he playfully deconstructs titles and colours to forewarn us of his playfulness ahead, Godard sets the tone with seemingly subdued on screen images but passionate narration. This is his film, the passion we hear in his voice comes from his love for cinema, for moving images, for the story he is about to tell.
It is no surprise that after this film, Godard’s output begins to get more and more radical and non-linear. Although far from an ordinary film, Le Mépris is told in quite straightforward fashion. What makes it such an intense and profound experience are the layers that Godard constructs and deconstructs as he tells a tale that feels powerfully autobiographical.
Second to his love for cinema is Godard’s hatred, or frustration towards it. He is constantly asking questions about the failure of the medium and its ability to tell stories. At the forefront of the film are questions about our relationship with films and through the deterioration of the relationship between the two main characters on screen, Godard makes clear his feeling towards the role and responsibilities of not just auteurs, but all those involved in cinema.
Pivotal to the plot is German master Fritz Lang, who is shooting an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. An American producer is angry at how the film is progressing and hires Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to write some additional scenes through it. The film opens with a glorious shot that follows a camera man filming a tracking shot who finally turns the camera towards us the audience. Later when we see the scenes that Lang has shot they are very simplistic yet raw and powerful, awe inspiring like the gods that they capture. Godard isn’t interested in shooting hyper realistic dramas with special effects. He understands, respects and draws from the influences from other arts but realises that cinema is its own unique medium in which different elements can be combined to deliver powerful results.
Godard famously quipped that a film should have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order but here has uses a simple classical construction dividing the film into three distinct parts. Perhaps the most famous and memorable is the middle, a heated argument between Paul and his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) where Godard utilises the space of their apartment, moving in and out with various long takes that help us explore the various desires and frustrations of the characters.
The film is littered with literary and cinematic references in what seems to be an ongoing battle between classical approaches and modernism. Godard portrays life and films as a series of battling opposing forces, contradictions and dilemmas. It's a film that deserves to be watched, discussed and celebrated for its creativity and genius. Breathless may have been Godard’s first film, but its form and style can be misleading in terms of what would follow for Godard. Le Mépris gives us a much more accurate indication of the direct approach of things to come, as Godard continues to create cinematic essays and questions in his works today.
You might also be interested in...
From Spike Lee and Wes Anderson to Jean-Luc Godard and Orson Welles, I take a look back at some of my favourite films from the past year.