Playing Godard

Oak Street Cinema, starts Friday


IN 1959, NOT even the most insightful devotee of the French New Wave could have guessed that Jean-Luc Godard--who had just released Breathless, the cinematic equivalent of a shot in the face--would four years later direct an international co-production in Technicolor and CinemaScope, with a huge budget and a star turn by Brigitte Bardot. But this film critic-turned-filmmaker practiced the auteur theory on the screen as well as the page, and Contempt is undeniably un film de Jean-Luc Godard: packed with insider references to Hollywood movies, obsessed with the most grueling details of the breakdown in a couple's relationship, and flaunting the most ambiguous sort of sexual politics. In these ways, you might say that the 34-year-old Contempt is as current a piece of postmodern cinema as the one Quentin Tarantino hasn't even finished yet--if not more so.

Basically, Contempt is a movie about the making of a movie and the un-making of a marriage. (It's playing at Oak Street for two weeks in a new widescreen print that includes several minutes of previously unreleased footage.) Paul (Michel Piccoli), a French writer living in Rome with his wife, Camille (Bardot), has been asked by an American film producer, Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), to rewrite some scenes for a screen version of The Odyssey being directed by the great Fritz Lang (who in real life made such classics as Metropolis and M). Split between the locations of the Villa Malaparte in Capri and the Cinecitta film studio in Rome (representing the poles of art and commerce?), Contempt maps out the gulfs between two squabbling pairs: Paul and Camille on the one hand, and Prokosch and Lang on the other.

Or should I say four squabbling pairs? Godard may have been possessed by cinema, but he couldn't help telling a couple of personal stories in Contempt. While making the film, Godard became embroiled in a battle of wills with producer Joseph E. Levine, and no wonder: Levine's primary achievement was having distributed a string of Italian muscle-epics such as Hercules. Like the character of Prokosch, who's shown leering and chortling at the sight of nude women on screen, Levine wanted skin, not art. Reportedly, Contempt's opening scene--which makes a catalog of Camille's (and Bardot's) body parts--was imposed on Godard by his producer. Not that the auteur failed to make some of the sexism his own. Bardot, especially when wearing a Louise Brooks-style black wig, is clearly a stand-in for Anna Karina, the director's then-wife and frequent female lead, whose prostitute characters of the early '60s seemed to bear the brunt of Godard's own contempt.

If Godard's work of the '60s reveals his deep ambivalence about both politics and cinema, his representation of women--mixing traces of feminist critique and film-noir cliches--can be downright baffling. When Prokosch bends over his female translator, using her derriere to write out a check, is Godard cashing in or constructing an aptly crude metaphor for the imprint of capitalism on the female body? Or both? And if Contempt succeeded at all in satisfying Levine's crass requirements, then how much does Godard's arty ambiguity separate him from a mere schlockmeister like Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman)? Certainly, it helps that Contempt takes its title at least in part from Camille's impatience with a husband who, like a pimp (or a filmmaker?), would prostitute her in order to further his career. Camille's oft-repeated line, "I have contempt for you," resonates like a pop-song refrain, but her most haunting words signal defeat. "My husband makes the decisions," Camille mutters at one point, as if she has resigned herself to that narrative formula.

As for Godard circa 1963, he obviously identifies with Fritz Lang's character in the archetypal war between artist and dealmaker. On the other hand, Lang's stated belief that "each picture should have a definite point of view" doubles as a definition of Contempt by its opposite--Godard having become a New Wave godhead precisely for his impish disregard for traditional perspectives. Suffice to say that part of what gives Contempt its self-reflexive frisson is that it finds Godard on the cusp between the first two phases of his epic career: He may have contempt for the industry, but he still loves its products. Before long, he would begin to drift toward highly political (and at times impenetrable) "film-essays" like Weekend (1967), Le gai savoir (1968), and Wind From the East (1969), which offered radical critiques of capitalism and "bourgeois cinema." But Contempt is the work of an ardent cinephile who, although jaded, still thought it possible to critique the system from the inside.

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