JEAN-LUC GODARD’S radiant, ambiguous, serenely perverse “Contempt,” 45 this year, is being revived again, in startling color and elegant, ribbony CinemaScope, for the second time in just over a decade, and it’s beginning to look like one of those movies we can’t do without for very long: a classic. Film Forum, which in 1997 gave New Yorkers their first opportunity in many years to see the film on the large screen it practically requires, starts another run (two weeks, minimum) on Friday. That 1997 revival opened a lot of eyes — of older filmgoers who’d been baffled by “Contempt” on its initial release, and of younger ones who knew it only by its reputation as Mr. Godard’s failed attempt at big-budget commercial moviemaking, or who had perhaps endured a college film society screening of a choppy, faded print. It’s time to open our eyes to its troubling beauty again.
When the picture, Mr. Godard’s sixth feature, opened in France in 1963, admirers of his challenging, radically innovative previous work, like “Breathless” (1960) and “My Life to Live” (1962), didn’t quite know what to make of it. Based on an Alberto Moravia novel that the director dismissed (unfairly) as a “nice, vulgar one for a train journey,” produced by Carlo Ponti and by Joseph E. Levine — two of the most powerful men in movies at that time, neither known as a patron of the arts — and starring, of all people, Brigitte Bardot, “Contempt” seemed at first a more conventional film than generally associated with Mr. Godard. Further confusing matters (as was, and remains, his custom), he told an interviewer that his movie was “a simple film, without mystery.”
It is nothing of the kind. Moravia’s story, which the film tells surprisingly faithfully, is a fairly simple one, about a screenwriter (played by Michel Piccoli) who can’t figure out why his wife (Ms. Bardot) has suddenly begun to despise him. The collapse of their marriage occurs while the writer is mulling an offer to punch up the script of “The Odyssey,” produced by a wily and crude American mogul (Jack Palance) and directed by Fritz Lang, who plays himself. (In the novel the director is an invented character, a generic veteran of the German silent cinema, who is, we’re told, “certainly not in the same class as the Pabsts and Langs.”) That’s about it for narrative: the writer frets, the wife glowers, the producer rants and manipulates, and Lang, calm in this storm of domestic malaise and showbiz madness, tries to make a movie that will reflect, at least a little, his vision of “The Odyssey.” “Homer’s world is a real world,” he says. “The poet belonged to a world that grew in harmony, not opposition, to nature.”
But Mr. Godard’s fidelity to the novel’s straightforward, rather uneventful plot has, like the heroine’s sullen fidelity to her husband, an undertone of refusal, even of subversion. The novel is interested primarily in the psychology of its characters, while the film is concerned with something so different that it seems, at times, almost to mock the very idea of psychology. When the screenwriter begins to interpret “The Odyssey” in terms of his own marital difficulties, he is purely ridiculous, and Mr. Godard emphasizes the absurdity by having the character deliver his loony exegesis while walking with Lang in a lovely grove on the island of Capri. The camera keeps its distance, as it does throughout the film; you can measure this picture’s indifference to psychology by the near-total absence of close-ups.
No, what “Contempt” is most profoundly interested in is what Lang is interested in: the relation of man to nature, here represented by Capri and the tranquil Mediterranean and, of course, by the less restful beauty of Ms. Bardot. Mr. Godard was prevailed upon by Mr. Levine to shoot extra footage of his lead actress in the altogether, and so tacked on an opening sequence of Ms. Bardot and Mr. Piccoli in bed. He may have done this grudgingly, but it’s good for the movie, because between that short scene and the characters’ arrival on the “Odyssey” set in Capri about an hour later, the action takes place in an eerily depopulated Rome, in settings from which nature has, it seems, been forcibly excluded. A full half-hour of “Contempt” is set in the couple’s sleekly modern high-rise apartment, where they roam and bicker among angular, primary-colored chairs and sofas, which stand out more strongly against the stark white walls than the tones of the hero’s, and even the heroine’s, flesh.
Ms. Bardot’s body, in that first scene, and Capri, in the concluding scenes, are the natural world that nobody in this movie seems quite capable of harmonizing with, or of seeing, as entirely, irreducibly real, the way Homer did. And it isn’t, of course. As “Contempt” does not allow us to forget, Lang is shooting a movie, and we in the audience are watching one, and here, as in every other movie ever made, we gaze, like Odysseus in this film’s gorgeous final shot, at a reality that’s a projection of our own desires, an Ithaca turned hazy by artifice and distance.
The greatness of “Contempt” is that Mr. Godard is not, finally, nostalgic for the Homeric harmony Lang speaks of. He knows that ship has sailed. In this picture everything, ancient or modern, “real” or “unreal,” has its own stunned dignity, and the movie wants us to see it all as beautiful — as its people, tragically, cannot. Even early ’60s furniture. “Contempt” is about men and women rendered graceless by their times, but the movie, substituting rigorous aesthetics for the novel’s psychology, shows us where they (and we) went wrong and achieves an extraordinary grace. (The crisp natural-light cinematography, by Raoul Coutard, and Georges Delerue’s mournful score have something to do with this too.)
Maybe we need “Contempt” because it’s one of the few movies of the anxious past half-century that seems equally at home with history and modernity. It might once have looked conventional, but its audacity, we now see, is breathtaking. The world of “Contempt” is epic in a new way: a world growing in harmony, not opposition, with artifice.
Da The New York Times, 9 Marzo 2008