4 May 2014 | cmccann-2
My favourite Godard movie
One of the central figures of the French new wave movement, Jean-Luc Godard revolutionized cinema in the late 1950's and early 1960's with films which mixed film-historical pastiche, pop art surfaces, and Marxist-existentialist philosophy in a fresh and innovative way. Released in 1963, Contempt arrived after a string of art-house successes and was at the time Godard's most expensive project, a widescreen story of a faltering marriage featuring big-name stars like Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance. Though some will argue for Breathless and others A Woman is a Woman, to me Contempt represents the apex of Godard's art, an indictment of capitalism dressed up as big budget Hollywood-style entertainment.
Contempt follows Paul Jeval (Michel Piccoli), a struggling playwright who artistically prostitutes himself as the screenwriter for a film adaptation of The Odyssey to support him and his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). Paul's decision to write for money makes the couple's marriage an unhappy one, Camille dissatisfied with him for his inability to do something which is both spiritually fulfilling for him and financially lucrative for them. The film ends with Camille leaving Paul to run off with his producer boss Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), the artist ultimately losing out to the larger mechanisms of capital.
The performances are all well-done, from Piccoli as the withdrawn Paul to Bardot as the coquettish Camille to Palance as the square-jawed money man. The cinematography of Raoul Coutard should be noted, having a pictorial beauty in its colour and composition which recalls the work of the artist Edward Hopper. Like Godard's other movies, Contempt has a playful and freewheeling approach in its structure and editing, at times randomly dipping into a montage sequence or tongue-in-cheek film homage. The story being told, as well as the film's more arty and experimental formal elements, make clear Contempt's status as a radically leftist work - a bomb to be tossed at a movie establishment which pumps out films conveyor belt-style for maximal profit.
In conclusion, one would be wrong to make accusations of "sell out" at Godard when looking at Contempt's original poster which exploits the sexuality of star Brigitte Bardot, because the film is just as radical as any of the director's other work. It's necessary viewing for anyone interested in the French new wave, time capsuling the period when the movement - building off the momentum of its critical hits -reached its apex. That Godard used his most commercial moment to craft a statement that was radically anti-commercial serves as a testament to his brilliance.