Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Georgia Moll, Fritz Lang, Jean-Luc Godard;
France/Italy 1963, 103 min.
For JL Godard LE MÉPRIS was just ”a film without mystery, an Aristotelian film, freed from appearances [it] proves in 149 shots, that in the cinema, just as in real life, there is nothing secret…there is nothing to do but live – and film”. His producers, among them Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine, must have been quiet shocked by the austere outcome; they insisted on an additional scene, showing the physical beauty of its star, Brigitte Bardot, only to be outmanoeuvred by the director.
Based on Alberto Moravia’s novel “Il Disprezzo’ (The Ghost at Noon), this film about filmmaking starts with the basics: a dolly on rails follows Georgia Moll’s Francesca Vanini who walks towards the camera, whilst the opening credits are not only shown, but also read out loud. A Bazin quote reminds us, that “film substitutes a world that conforms our desires”. “The follow-up scene of Bardot’s Camille, laying naked on her stomach, and her husband Paul (Piccoli), was supposed to entice a mass audience and was shot after the film was finished. But Godard simply subverted the call for any form of eroticism, letting Camille ask Paul which parts of her anatomy he loves the most – the obvious answer is everything – whilst she lies unmoved and statuesque during the long enumeration. Strangely, these are the only happy moments Camille and Paul will have during the whole film. When Paul, a scriptwriter, later meets the American producer Prokosh (Palance) in Rome’s Cinecitta, Camille feels that her husband is pimping her out to the arrogant, misogynist and dictatorial producer who exclaims: “I like Gods, I know exactly how they feel”. In addition, he is treating his well-educated assistant and translator Francesca Vanini (Moll) like a slave girl.
Whilst sitting in a preview theatre with Fritz Lang – as himself, the director of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, the film being produced, Paul and Camille witness a terrible strop by Prokosh, who, unhappy about the rushes shot by Lang, kicks the film rolls around the room and then has Vanini bent over, to write a check for Paul on her back changing the script into a more populist version. Shouting “When the Nazis heard the word culture, they drew a revolver; I am only writing a check”, Prokosh gives Paul the check: the 10 000 Dollar are supposed to pay the mortgage for Camille’s and Paul’s flat in Rome. When Paul accepts the check, however reluctant, he loses his wife.
In a breath-taking 34 minute sequence in the couple’s flat, Godard follows the unravelling of their relationship with tracking shots which show the growing distance between the couple. These finally unravels in one frame in two different rooms, divided by a wall. Camille is slapped by Paul, she slaps back, he retreats, but it is too late: Camille shouts angrily: “When you were writing crime novels, we were broke, but that was fine with me”.
The flat, which was to cement their relationship, has become the albatross killing their love. Paul still believes he can save his marriage and seems to have learned nothing: when the film crew moves on to Capri, Paul again leaves Camille, against her will, alone with Prokosh, who obviously fancies her. This time Camille retaliates: she kisses the producer in full sight of Paul. Then she packs her bags to leave for Rome, whilst Paul terminates his contract with Prokosh. To humiliate Paul even further, Camille lets Prokosh, whom she despises, drive her to Rome. Their journey ends in a fatal crash, which is not shown, Godard making fun of mainstream movies, just showing the dead bodies in grotesque positions, with the last words of Camille’s good-bye letter to Paul superimposed: “Take Care. Adieu. Camille”.
LE MÉPRIS ends with serene filmmaking in Capri, where Godard acts as Lang’s assistant in shooting the scene when Odysseus returns to Ithaca. As Godard pointed out “the film is shot entirely in real locations, both exteriors and interiors, honest and authentic”. One of them is the gorgeous villa of the Italian author Curzio Malaparte on Capri, designed by Alberto Libera, it sits like a space ship in the sun.In the panorama shots, the film crew with their equipment look like aliens at work. Movie posters of Hitchcock’s Psycho and Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life among others, decorate Paul and Camille’s flat; but the main honour goes to Roberto Rossellini: Apart from the poster of his 1961 film Vanina Vanini (sic!), the group visits a cinema to hear a performance of a singer. We notice that Paul and Camille are sitting on the edge of their respective aisles, and after they all leave the cinema, we see Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia advertised in big letters on the cinema front.
Raoul Coutard’s scope camera produces three different sets of colours: in the opening sequence of the couple in bed, soft, warm colours dominate. Then everything changes to cold, icy mages. Lang’s film takes, which he shoots as an actor, are dominated by classic colours, appropriate to the content of the film. Godard employed no less than five future directors for the project: Suzanne Schiffman (Script Supervisor), Charles L. Bitsch (Assistant director), Bertrand Tavernier (Publicity), Luc Moulett, whose book on Fritz Lang Camille reads in the bath and Jacques Rozier, who shot a documentary about the making of LE MÉPRIS.
But there is also a very personal moment in Godard’s LE MÉPRIS: Camille buys herself a black wig making her look just like Anna Karina (Godard’s first choice to play Camille) two years later as Natacha von Braun in the car with Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution at the end of Alphaville: only then it was the begin of a love story, this is the end. George Delerue’s mourning main tune, which accompanies not only this scene, is the haunting voice in this story of money versus art, which ends in the loss of love. The film is proof that even though Godard frequently ended in a cul-de-sac whilst he re-invented film, he is still one of the most important directors of the second half of the 20th century. AS
SCREENING ON LONG RELEASE AT BFI | JEAN LUC GODARD RETROSPECTIVE 2016 JANUARY – MARCH