Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris is over fifty years old but is fresher and more vibrant than virtually any film you’ll see this year. The film is a great example of Godard’s mastery of interiors and barely concealed emotions, and starts with a quotation from André Bazain, ‘Film constitutes a world that conforms to our desires.’
This is a hint that Le Mépris is a reworking of Godard’s own world to conform to his own desires, as the director wanted his then wife Anna Karina to play the lead, but had Bardot forced upon him by the producer.
Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard create many masterful scenes, especially when the characters played by Piccoli and Bardot wander through their apartment alternately arguing and reconciling. This is a technical masterpiece spoiled only by an early glimpse of the reflection of the crew in a glass door.
But a film that opens with a camera tracking along a lot in Cinecittà in Rome and turning towards the audience is consciously a film about the making of a film. Any shattering of invented illusions would not have been at the front of Godard’s mind, unlike the obsessive Alejandro González Iñárritu directing Birdman over fifty years later.
Le Mépris is less the story of a failing relationship, of the type Antonioni mastered, than a satire of the processes and failings in the creative process.
The ‘contempt’ of the title is the hatred Camille, played by the iconic Bardot, begins to feel for her husband Paul played by Michel Piccoli a writer hired to fix a broken script.
Legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang is a hired-hand director harassed by odious American producer Jack Palance to film a script based on Homer’s Odyssey. Piccoli’s job is to rework the script to the producer’s liking, and while Camille welcomes the financial security this brings including the continued enjoyment of their new Roman apartment, she questions her husband’s mercenary decision.
This is compounded when her husband seems all too eager to allow his new lecherous employer to drive his wife in his shiny red Alpha Romeo for drinks in his villa, while her husband follows along meekly in a taxi.
Le Mépris is full of contempt. The contempt of the producer for the director’s decisions and for the creative process in general, the contempt the director in turn has for the producer, and the contempt of Camille for her husband and his refusal to take more control of his own talent and creativity.
But it’s his own self-contempt that eventually forces Paul to quit the project, once he sees his capitulation and impotence has driven his beautiful wife into another man’s arms.
Godard, who appears in the film as Fritz Lang’s assistant, is using art to express his own fears. Le Mépris is less the story of a failing relationship, of the type Antonioni mastered, than a satire of the processes and failings in the creative process.
This is probably Bardot’s best movie as it’s so more than a vehicle to exploit her sexuality, even though her sexuality is ironically exploited especially in the opening sequence.
As a masterful study in how to move characters around in defined spaces revealing their emotions and motivations, Le Mépris is a film that gives film makers of the twenty-first century a high target to aim for.