It's been forty years since the New Wave came crashing down on the placid shore of traditional French filmmaking, but to the faithful, it was only yesterday.
Students of the art cinematic and devotees of all things francais are heralding the rerelease of Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 milestone Contempt as a major event. Writing in Sight and Sound, one Colin McCabe recently deemed it--hold your hat--"the greatest work of art produced in post-war Europe." The markedly less erudite U.S. fan mag Premiere calls it "a brilliant study of the filmmaking process." After three decades in limbo--it's been a no-show even at Godard retrospectives--Contempt returns to theaters under the aegis of none other than Martin Scorsese, who lovingly borrowed from it in Casino.
So, what do we have here?
Godard acolytes, and they are legion, will still find in this double-barreled study of a faltering marriage and a troubled movie production of The Odyssey a dark meditation on the wars between art and commerce, classicism and modern vulgarity, love and mistrust, film and life. They will find, with justification, stunning prophecies about the future of culture and the coming assault of the philistines.
Meanwhile, those less enthralled with M. Godard's political posturings and trademark penchant for stuffing every frame of his work with symbols, dialectic and the brand of French pessimism that was once all the rage may choose instead to indulge a little philistinism of their own: i.e., they'll ignore Godard's "ironic" use of his star and, men and women alike, simply feast their eyes on Brigitte Bardot in her prime--decades before she started splashing blood on mink coats.
Taking the middle ground might be the best course. Contempt (Le Mepris to the Gauloises-and-Pernod crowd) may not rank up there with Citizen Kane or Potemkin (or Jules and Jim), but it sure ain't Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
In contrast to Godard's overtly political films of the late Sixties--Weekend and La Chinoise were virtual sacraments in New Left circles--and his unwatchable propaganda of the Seventies, Contempt still looks startlingly conventional.
For one thing, it's shot in Cinemascope and dazzling Technicolor, hardly the metier of the New Wave rebels. For another, it uses glamorous locations in Rome and on sun-splashed Capri. For a third, it features international stars--snarly Jack Palance as a brutish American producer who would reduce Homer's great epic to a mere striptease with a little modern neurosis tacked on for good measure; La Bardot as the increasingly alienated wife of the impoverished playwright (Michel Piccoli) the producer hires to dumb down the script; and the great German expatriate director Fritz Lang as himself--the conscience of cinema. He would no more savage Homer for Palance's Hollywood barbarian than serve Hitler.
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Thus do Godard's lifelong obsessions--film, love, politics--collide again in a work that looks glossy on the surface (his intention exactly) but is all Nouvelle Vague irony underneath. It's also deadly serious.
So, then, take your choice: The famous thirty-minute sequence in which Paul and Camille, the happy couple being put asunder by the crass American visitor, meander around their unfinished apartment, unraveling as we watch, is either classic Godardian technique revisited--or a dated exercise in tedium. Godard's pioneering jump cuts and Georges Delerue's much-heralded score are as fresh as ever--or tatty around the edges. The director's relentless self-consciousness of style and subject are the soul of cinematic purity--or they are vaguely irritating anachronisms.
Your own conclusions will depend on your taste for the doctrinaire Godardian worldview, then and now, and on your judgment of the claims that he remains one of the greatest filmmakers of all time--or a guy who created new techniques in the service of a new politics. Personally, I prefer Truffaut and Chabrol, New Wave-wise. Always did, always will. Despite my having cut sugar cane in Cuba and thrown a couple of rocks on Morningside Heights.
Written by Jean-Luc Godard, from the novel Il Deprezzo, by Alberto Moravia. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. With Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance and Fritz Lang.