[box cover]

Contempt: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Michel Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance,
and Fritz Lang

Adapted from the novel by Alberto Moravia

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

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Review by D.K. Holm                    

Because cinema is a gaze which is substituted for our own in order to give us a world that corresponds to our desires, it settles on faces, on radiant or bruised but always beautiful bodies, on this glory or this devastation which testifies to the same primordial nobility, of this chosen race that we recognize as our own....

— Critic Michel Mourlet, 1959

Critics make the best directors.

Some of the most intelligent filmmakers in the history of cinema "began" as critics, among them François Truffaut, Paul Schrader, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, Bertrand Tavernier, and Peter Bogdanovich. Many screenwriters, including Paul D. Zimmerman, Frank S. Nugent, and Richard LaGravenese, also began as reviewers.

I put quotes around "began" because movie obsession really has no beginning or end; filmmaking is the pursuit of criticism by other means, and vice versa.

But of course we don't think of the situation this way. Americans are terrified of versatility, probably because it makes them "feel bad" about themselves, the achievements of others casting them as losers. So we divide up what people can do, reduce others to schematic representations. I am this, you are that. You are a director, the exalted artist, the creator, the moral antenna of the race, the explicator of life, and, in that privileged position, you are also someone who can do anything else as well (write novels, publish books of photographs, have a band); while I am the critic, the reviled, the negative person who hates everything, the leech who thrives on the hard labors of others.

Of course, the world is more complicated than ordinary fucking people (as Harry Dean Stanton calls them in Repo Man) care to grasp. Roles are more fluid than we acknowledge. Film is a continuum, and those obsessed with it want to write about it (in order to see free movies) as well as do it, celebrate it, engage in it, and are enraged when its sacred form is violated. Of course, Europeans have it right. There, the assumption around which all else revolves is that film is an art form. Thus, pulp fiction or supposedly low art is not automatically disparaged, nor are filmmakers segregated permanently from commentators.

So a filmmaker such as Jean-Luc Godard, among the most challenging directors of the past several decades, can draw upon pulp novels as the basis for his films without a hint of slumming. His work continues to influence the best or the most interesting filmmakers, from Scorsese, who quotes Godard in almost all his movies, to Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company after one of Godard's early films, from films such as Blade Runner, which borrowed its bleak view of the future and its theme and ending from Godard's Alphaville, to the minor French film While the Cat's Away, which shared the scorn Godard heaped upon a Paris under massive development in Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d'elle. What filmmakers admire, in part, is how Godard often intriguingly searches out meaning in his movies through the juxtaposition of disparate images, as well as his unique approach to his performers, in which he adopts the posture of documentarian, filming his cast in the act of acting.

We forget that Godard was a reviewer for 10 years before the release of his first feature. In fact he noted that, "I'm still as much of a critic as I ever was during the time of Cahiers du cinema. The only difference is that instead of writing criticism, I now film it." His collected writings, Godard on Godard, remains one of the best books on film because of its epigrammatic shimmer and his sheer enthusiasm. He never stopped being a reviewer, especially from the early '80s until now, during which time the director has turned to inward, allusive, elusive videos about the history and meaning of cinema.

*          *          *

The release of Contempt on DVD — with, among other things, three restored minutes (mostly minor flashbacks, fantasies, and a flash-forward) — reminds us that criticism is a fine foundation for a career in movies. In Sight and Sound, Colin MacCabe called Contempt "the greatest work of art produced in post-war Europe," because of its mixture of modernity with classicism, its poignant use of four languages, and its constant, breathtaking visual beauty.

On the other hand, revered as Godard is now, when he was most active, making two or three movies a year, he was reviled by many mainstream writers and most ordinary moviegoers as insulting and mocking the art of cinema. Contempt must have been particularly dismaying to the guardians of cinema because it seemed to be a regular movie. Produced by Joseph E. Levine, who released Italian Hercules movies in the U.S., Contempt had the surface virtues of big stars, color cinematography, and a plot.

Shot and released in Europe in 1963, then stateside in 1964, Contempt is based on a novel by Alberto Moravia translated as The Ghost at Noon. The film comprises a morning, in Rome, and the following afternoon, in Capri, in the life of Paul Javel (Michel Piccoli), a playwright induced into re-writing a movie based on Homer's Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang. The producer is Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), a vacuous vulgarian who answers questions by quoting from a small volume he carries with him, ends sentences with the demand "Yes or no?!," and uses the back of his mistress and secretary Francesca Vanini (Giorgia Moll) to sign checks.

Things go awry for Paul when he contrives to be late to a meeting so that Prokosch has a chance to come on to Paul's wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot). She doesn't believe his explanation for his tardiness, and this incident makes her suspicious of her husband. Suddenly she finds that she lacks sympathy for him. After a remarkable 30-minute long argument scene, they disband, with unhappy consequences.

Like all great works of art, Contempt is about many things at once. It chronicles the disintegration of a marriage. It portrays prostitution as a metaphor for life in capitalist society. It makes a statement about how movies are made. It is a contemplation of the soul of cinema and the role of the filmmaker in society, and a meditation on two approaches to life, essentially modernity versus antiquity.

To buttress the meaning of his movie, Godard quotes from Dante, Holderlin, Brecht, and Louis Lumière, among others, and makes passing references to many movies, including Rio Bravo, Bigger than Life, Hatari!, Psycho, Vanina Vanini, The Big Knife, and his own Vivre sa vi. There are more substantial citations from Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (from which Godard borrows his use of spoken, rather than written, credits), and Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (which is also about the breakdown of a marriage).

But there are some larger influences that enrich one's understanding of the film, which Jonathan Rosenbaum tracked in the Chicago Reader. First there is Joseph Mankiewicz's adaptation of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which features a similar triangle. Godard wrote his first film review about this movie, and even borrowed its actress, Giorgia Moll, for Contempt. Another is Michelangelo Antonioni, whose meditations on his relationship with actress Monica Vitti through several films is mirrored in Godard's tales of romances and break-ups filmed with his wife, Anna Karina. Then there is Fritz Lang, whom Godard's colleagues championed in the '50s, seeing beyond the sleazy surfaces of his pulp films to the artistry behind them. In Contempt, Lang represents the endurance of the artist in a corrupt society. More obscure to Americans is Jean-Daniel Pollet's 42-minute film Mediterranea, a cinematic poem in which meaning is acquired through the layering of images. Godard wrote an ecstatic essay on this film, which is reprinted in Godard on Godard. Finally, there is Vincente Minelli's Some Came Running, in which Dean Martin always wears a hat for luck (which Paul mimics in Contempt), and who takes it off only in honor of the woman who gave her life for the struggling artist hero (Frank Sinatra), just as the death of a woman in Contempt releases (one hopes) an artist. Godard also borrows the extreme color coding that Minelli uses in his film.

*          *          *

So why the word "contempt?"

As Richard Roud points out in Godard, the first book in English about the director and still the best general introduction to him, almost every early Godard feature is built around a lengthy chat between the central man and woman. From Breathless on, Godard has fixated upon the nuances of romance to portray society. Though Contempt stars Bardot, Godard made eight films with or about his then-wife Anna Karina (once they had a fight so intense they ended up tearing apart all the clothes in their apartment, and had to call upon Claude Chabrol to go out and buy them some new ones). In Contempt this signature scene reaches its apotheosis, running half an hour, almost a third of the film. It's breathtaking in its audacity, and, as Rosenbaum noted, the scene has a "remarkable feel for the ebb and flow of a troubled relationship." That Godard should mount the full machinery of cinema to explore his own personal ambivalences is a measure of how the buffish, or "critic's" approach to film waves away the broad generalities of the so-called Tradition of Quality to bury its nose in agonizing specificity. Intellectual and demanding, Contempt is also a searing self-critique. "Is it a mocking smile or a smile of tenderness?" Paul, in his self-conscious ignorance, asks his estranged wife, and it is a heartbreaking moment for anyone who has witnessed the withdrawal of love from life.

But the film also expresses contempt for contemporary society. In Godard's view, we are distanced from the kind of harmonious intimacy the ancients held with the natural processes and with their society. We are so distanced, in fact, that our relationships, which should be guided and thrive though instinct, inevitably go awry. In Godard's Hegelian counterpoint, Rome represents the modern world and Capri the ancient world, before civilization descended into neurosis and prostitution. Today, in contrast to the antiquity, there is no meaning. Everything is second rate. Ours is a civilization that has lost its way.

Besides a woman flipping or agitating her hair, which Roud points out, another signature moment or trope that appears in every Godard film is the quick cutting back and forth between two images, coming across as some kind of variation on blinking. It can be musical or visual, such as images flashing back and forth. This "blinking," this layered visual style, was to take precedence over the long conversation scene after its ultimate realization in Contempt, and it is the cinematic analog of Godard's wrestling with Hegelian antitheses. Here, it is a lamp being switched on and off during a conversation that can only end in despair (did Adrian Lyne quote this moment in Fatal Attraction?) Godard can only gaze at his distraught couple through the fluctuating light. His gaze captures reality, but questions the possibility that he can ever penetrate the surface and fine truth.

*          *          *

Criterion does a top-notch job with this tortured meditation on movie making. Their two-disc Contempt offers a pristine, beautiful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) that was supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Audio is an adequate Dolby Digital 1.0 in French, with optional English subtitles in a new translation. There is an optional English-dubbed soundtrack as well. As is customary with such things, the sound on this track is awful, and the voices are not those of the original actors, even when they could have dubbed themselves.

The first substantial supplement the consumer is going to encounter is the audio commentary by Robert Stam. He provides a good guide through the symbolism of the movie, discussing the meaning of the statuary that punctuates the film and noting that the narrative is laid out to encompass all the stages of filmmaking. The track is informative and a good place to start for viewers wanting to plumb the depths of the film's meaning.

The rest of the supplementary material pops up on Disc Two. First off is "The Dinosaur and the Baby," a conversation conducted between Godard and Fritz Lang (61 min.), and not released until 1967 when it appeared as part of the Cineastes du notre temps series supervised by Andrew Labarthe. Like most other interviews between great filmmakers, they speak in platitudes and get easily sidetracked. Also included in the interview, which is presented in a very scratchy black and white with way too many excerpts from Contempt, are remarks by actor Howard Vernon, who appeared in many of Lang's later films. The doc is notably for showing how charming Godard could be. He even smiles once. Next is a short documentary by Peter Fleischmann called "Encounter with Fritz Lang" (14:25), which appears to be shot on the set of the film.

Two historic, interesting "making-of" spots included on the set are "Le Parti des choses: Bardot et Godard" (9:31), a documentary about Godard on the set of Contempt directed by one Jacques Rozier, and the same director's "Paparazzi" (17:48), about the media attention surround the presence of Bardot at Capri. Both are in black and white. There is very little narration in this short, but lots of images of BB walking around, or on the cover of magazines. There is no insight or investigation of the BB phenomenon, necessarily.

Next is an interview with Godard excerpted from a 1964 episode of a black-and-white French television show called "Cinepanorama" (10:28). Wearing his trademark sunglasses (who does he think he is, Jack Nicholson?), Godard speaks both frankly and gnomically about moviemaking and the transition from critic to director. This is followed by a recent color video interview, shot in the summer of 2002, with the aging Raoul Coutard (26:28). Coutard was director of photography for most of the early Nouvelle vague films, and here he tells amusing stories about how Godard got along with BB, and how Jack Palance behaved on the set. (By the way, the supplements come with optional English subtitles.)

Finally, there is the theatrical trailer (2:30), a very Godardian experience that mocks commercialism while successfully selling the viewer on the film. Another helpful feature is a widescreen versus full-frame demonstration (5:10), which should be required viewing in elementary schools across the country.

Packaging materials include a 10-page folding insert with chapter information, cast, credits, DVD credits, a reprinted essay by Philip Lopate, and a reprint of the original poster. The animated, musical menu offers 12-chapter scene-selection.

— D.K. Holm

Disc One

Disc Two

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© 2002, The DVD Journal