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Revival House: Contempt (Le mépris), 1963                                                                                      Raiona Gaydos








In a film about the slow dissolution of a relationship and the search for invisible reasons behind love lost, how can director Jean-Luc Godard deliver on its opening refrain: “Cinema substitutes for our gaze a world in harmony with our desires. Contempt is the history of this world”?


        The first scene introduces the married couple, Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille Javal (Brigitte Bardot), close-up and entwined on a bed. It gives us an almost brutally intimate look into the fragmented perfection of their romance, seen through pop artsy color washes of red and blue. Camille interrogates both vulnerably and playfully (acting at once as Godard’s ice queen/block of marble and pop culture’s beloved bombshell B.B./bébé): “Do you see my feet in the mirror? And my ankles, do you like them? My knees? My thighs? And what about my face? Do you love my eyes, my nose, my mouth? Then you love me totally.” To which Paul responds, “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.” Their love, so verbally thorough, is interpreted serially, like Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, through the splicing of fragments of frame, color, and body parts.  Murmurings that both beg and reassure, images that draw us much too close, a complete surrender to love: this might just be that “world in harmony with our desires” that cinema can singly provide, while the rest of the movie’s continued demolition of this scene would seem to be its opposite.


        The trouble begins when Paul, a struggling writer, signs a screenwriting deal with American megalomaniac producer Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance) to collaborate on a newfangled version of the Odyssey, to be filmed in Capri and directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself). After an initial studio session, Paul exhorts Camille to spend time alone with Prokosch in his red sports car. The couple reunites in Prokosch’s châlet garden, Camille’s face  recalling the weight of air that comes before a storm in a clear sky. The quality of the film's color suddenly jumps to new resolution, and we know Camille has, too.


        Though her denial of her love for Paul seems sudden and unfounded, we still feel the claustrophobia of the relationship Camille suddenly wishes to escape. We are given cinematic evidence, in image and music, of how such unhappy feelings can arise within a seemingly happy situation. The soundtrack’s main piece, the Thème de Camille by Georges Delerue, is sullen and repetitious but rises gradually in pitch to a final crescendo of brief awakening and expansion—the expression, however minute, of bottled-up emotion.


        This cinematic evidence for otherwise misunderstood or nebulous sentiment is also produced by the editing techniques Godard uses to splice together the psychological revolutions of the story. Images repeat. In these sequences the chronological progression of the film rotates and spins backward, and we join in obsession over a painfully confusing but crucial instance in the characters’ memory. Narrative monologue is dubbed over these essays of shots that map the process of thought. The dubbed monologues work to unfold the unspoken layers of the story: to lay forth the state of sentiments and to say the things that have been lingering under the surface of the characters’ dialogue.


        The most haunting and memorable of these comes after the longest scene in the movie: 34 minutes of Paul and Camille bathing and arguing in various states of dress—cigarette-ed in the bathtub, Stetson-hatted, bright red-toweled, black bob-wigged—against the backdrop of their brand new sunny, sparse, and voguish screenwriter’s-advance apartment. Displaced anger comes to a boil and fades into silence, and the newfound absence of Camille’s love finally hits Paul in the gut. What follows is a montage that imposes a sense of loss like a heavy snowfall. Flashes: Camille unwillingly gets into Prokosch’s car one more time; she turns to him with a stony look in the garden; she’s lifting her nude body up from the shag carpet like a sovereign sphinx. The shots remain on loop in the audience's head long after they’ve been screened. Paul journeys like Odysseus. His journey, though, is through barely graspable islands of memory to understand the decline of their relationship.


        Godard also uses Contempt to provide evidence of his own emotions about its making: the gods of the Odyssey are like his CinemaScope cameras (Fritz Lang’s character criticizes this new technology as “for snakes and burials”); classicism is a commentary on modernity; the cliffs of Capri, where the Odyssey is filmed, are a world separated from modern Rome—site of the ruins of unused movie studios in a crumbling 1960s film industry. Big-wig producer Prokosch is another symbol of film’s dying Golden Age.  He hates the changes in the film industry, too, yet he whips out his checkbook the second he hears the word “culture.” Godard is dealing with creating a film from a “pulp” novel (Contempt is an adaptation of the 1954 novel, Il Disprezzo, by Albert Moravia) with the biggest budget and superstar he ever worked with (Bardot). He begins the movie with opening credits that are read aloud, while we watch a crew shooting a scene whose track camera ends up turning to face us directly. Godard exposes his process to the audience to telescope its effect and ask the viewers what they really desire from cinema.


        Godard’s Contempt provides proof of slippery nuance not through explicit reasoning but through double exposure of multi-layered, lived experience. Through montage and music he provides a world that is built for us to grasp intuitively and a way of looking and listening that triumphs over the shortcomings of insight unaided by the penetrating, Argosian eyes of the camera. Film becomes not a slice of reality made two-dimensional but a reality all its own: texturing, redefining, and brightening the sensations, impressions, and emotions that are a struggle to disentangle off screen, “…a world in harmony with our desires.”






Raiona Gaydos grew up in a Brooklyn soap-factory-turned-performance-space that, on weekend nights, was commandeered by street poets, topless drummers, and white-faced Butoh dancers who used her childhood lair as their dressing room. When a radio interviewer asked her at eight years old how she felt about all of this, she is reported to have said, “I’m gonna be really weird when I grow up.” She was right. She has studied at the New School in New York City, lived in Paris, and is now back in her birth-town of Pittsburgh.