Big Budget Godard: How Contempt Tells Us How He Really Feels

Fritz Lang directs his

Fritz Lang directs his

In 1963, French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard was hired by an Italian production company to make a movie. Godard decided to adapt the Italian novel The Ghost at Noon and was asked by his producers to cast Bridget Bardot and Jack Palance and include some nudity—because why else would people see a movie. What they got was pure Godard, a critique on commercial filmmaking and a reflection of his long-suffering marriage to Anna Karina.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

In Contempt, film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Palance) hires screenwriter Paul Javal (Michael Piccoli) to rewrite his troubled production, a Fritz Lang-directed art film adaptation of The Odyssey, and make it more commercial. But after introducing his wife, Camille (Bardot), to Prokosch, Paul engages in a bitter fight with Camille, signaling the end of both relationships.

Contempt attacks the process of making art and getting art made, critiquing everything from ego to viewership, from greed to sexuality, and how movies manipulate. Godard slams the movie industry and makes a movie that both compels and tricks his audience, parodying his own experiences as a filmmaker and commercial moviemaking in general.

Like Fritz Lang says during the disastrous test screening of “The Odyssey,” it’s all in the script. Lang’s version of The Odyssey, which features marble statues of Greek Gods “acting” over his narration, follows the script beat for beat, but ignores the mass market appeal. Prokosch hired Lang for the prestige, but got art. Lang took the role for the art, but got a struggle. Neither can agree, so Prokosch brings in Paul. Godard’s journey to put Contempt to the screen parallels the conflict between Lang and Prokosch. Prokosch wants more action, Godard’s producers want more nudity. Lang delivers art, Godard parodies the sexualized exploitation of Bardot by adding a prologue that features the nude actress asking her co-star what he thinks of her body.

In her brunette wig, Bardot resembles Anna Karina, and Godard takes a stab at his wife.

In her brunette wig, Bardot resembles Anna Karina, and Godard takes a stab at his wife.

Godard never lets us forget that we’re watching a movie, and from the opening credits, where he narrates the credits over the image of a tracking camera—we see the camera, not what the camera is shooting—, he challenges the viewer to look at what’s happening behind the scenes. He continues this throughout the movie, tricking us with the soundtrack, a swelling orchestral theme that heightens the drama but refuses to end the scene. The drama and score deflates, and it happens over and over again. Using the music, Godard calls attention to how the soundtrack manipulates us into thinking one way, like a Hollywood movie would, and uses it against the viewer and his producers.

Feelings of contempt surround the film. Godard’s marriage to Karina expressed through the deterioration of Paul and Camille’s marriage, and his art shown through the conflict between Prokosch and Lang, culminate in a violent car crash that leaves his wife and financier dead.  His anger spews from the screen through his parody of the audience’s expectations, his producer’s ego, and exploiting his star’s body, as per studio request. Contempt is a film argument in the angriest sense of the word.

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