Contempt (1963)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 43min

During his peak of activity in the 1960’s, Jean-Luc Godard took a brief respite from sending up beloved Hollywood genres to aim his incisive wit towards the “gods” of storytelling themselves, be they Greek poets or contemporary filmmakers. The tension between the ancient and the modern is evident in Contempt as writers, directors, producers, and actors argue amongst themselves, trying to determine the motivation that drove Odysseus’ epic ten-year adventure across the eastern Mediterranean. It is indeed a curious thing that so many ancient myths take the emphasis off the internal journeys and onto the external, and yet this allows for some universality in which individuals can imprint themselves on these legendary figures. In the case of these artists making a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, it is the perfect story upon which they can map their own relationships and ambitious endeavours.

Playfully postmodern with ancient Greek art and mythology. These cutaways of coloured in sculptures against a blue sky set them like gods of storytelling.

Cutaways of Greek god statues with their eyes and lips coloured in with reds and blues run through the film, as Godard’s low angles powerfully frame them against the sky. In fact, Contempt’s mise-en-scène may be his most classical we have seen to date, even as Godard’s primary “French” colours keep bursting through in its set dressing and lighting. Back at the apartment of Brigitte Bardot’s actress, Camille, and Michel Piccoli’s playwright, Paul, the occasional bright blue chair or red towel worn like a toga pierces the beige, modern architecture, marking the breakdown of their relationship as a tale just as fresh as it is old, woven into the archetypes of human storytelling. Is it sexual jealousy that has driven them apart, or rather a loss of respect for Paul’s integrity as an artist? Was Odysseus’ journey driven by a faithless wife back home, an indifference to her growing contempt for him, or something else altogether?

Colours and staging in this mid-section of the film, breaking down a troubled relationship.

Unable to agree on the source of their own woes, Camille and Paul are driven to the extreme ends of Godard’s compositions, divided by huge amounts of negative space in the walls and door frames of their accommodation. Even when the two finally come face to face, it is as if they can’t stand to be captured in the same image together, as Godard’s camera instead shifts side-to-side in close-ups of their profiles. This ebb and flow between casual conversation and shouting takes up a full half hour of the film’s modest 100-minute run time, letting them attempt some sort of direct expression of their feelings before returning to the film set for the remaining third.

In the villa where the shoot is taking place, several of Contempt’s characters venture up a cascade of steps to a flat rooftop, overlooking the same Mediterranean Sea which played host to the hero of Homer’s epic poem. Godard knows what he has with this gorgeous set piece as he returns to it over and over, further isolating his characters in long shots as lonely, modern idols wandering a corner of the Earth so famous for its stories. The potential to contribute to the mythos of humanity is right there for the taking, but for those who degrade it with their visions of dishonest, crude entertainment, it ultimately holds nothing but contempt.

Arguably Godard’s greatest set piece, this villa rooftop looking out over the Mediterranean Sea like a platform to the heavens.

Contempt is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

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