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In 1962, French director Jean-Luc Godard was still basking in the early glow of the acclaim that cineastes the world over were lavishing upon his name-making arthouse fare such as Breathless (1960) and A Woman Is a Woman (1961). More than a few eyebrows, therefore, were raised when the rebel storyteller was signed by mainstream producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine to a big-budget Cinemascope project anchored by the presence of reigning international sex goddess Brigitte Bardot. At once Godard's closest flirtation with commercial mainstream cinema, and his most pointed backhanded slap at it, Contempt (1963) has long been admired by film fanatics as a telling depiction of the moviemaking process and a sobering portrait of the death of love.
Freely adapting the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia's 1954 opus A Ghost at Noon, Godard's narrative opens on the boudoir of crime novelist-screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and his lovely young ex-secretary wife Camille (Bardot). Paul has been summoned to a studio screening room, to bear witness to a clash between esteemed director Fritz Lang (Fritz Lang) and his gauche, overbearing producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). Apparently, Lang's artistic perspectives on Prokosch's latest project, an adaptation of The Odyssey, are too high-minded for the boorish backer's taste, and the producer, sufficiently impressed by Paul's doctoring of the recent Toto Meets Hercules, offers the writer a hefty check to "rescue" Lang's output.
While trying to seem diffident to Prokosch's porcine posturing, Paul's only too willing to meet at the producer's villa to discuss the matter further--and only too willing to agree to let his obviously discomfited wife accompany Prokosch to the conference in his snug two-seat sportster. Though only a half-hour behind in arriving at Prokosch's palatial digs, Paul finds the once-affectionate Camille distant and cold, and she remains so upon their return to their apartment. Paul tries to wheedle positive responses from her, which come only fitfully; whether angered by his prostitution of her, or of his art, she seems to have no interest in bridging the gap.
The narrative moves to Capri, where Prokosch has invited the couple for sun and surf in between location shoots. Though Paul is willing to back out of the assignment if it will restore Camille's affections, the likelihood is dashed when he catches her willingly receive a pass from the producer. The wronged wife accompanies Prokosch back to Rome for the scenario's appropriately Greek-tragedy denouement.
By all accounts, Godard was all too quickly chafing at the constraints attached to Contempt; Levine might have been the one person upon whom the savage parody of the vulgar Prokosch persona was lost. Palance, for his part, seized upon the role with brio, whether hurling the film cans bearing Lang's handiwork in philistine mockery of a discus thrower, or barely concealing his oafish lechery over rushes of an actress in a nude swim.
As for the leads, Ponti had shot down Godard's professed choices of Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak; the producer's counter of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni left the director cold. While a compromise was reached, Godard was unhappy about being expected to tailor the film around Bardot's established screen persona. The prolonged bedroom opening was added as a sop to his producers' insistence that the film's nude footage of Bardot was insufficient--and it's a credit to the director's ability that he made a lingering skin shot of BB seen patently unerotic. It was a tenuous relationship, but it still resulted in what was perhaps the most cerebral and affecting performance of the young Bardot's heyday.
In what's regarded as his star-making role, Piccoli hit all the right notes in rendering his self-absorbed, abusive and ultimately sadly clueless scribe, almost always seen in a fedora so he can come off like Dean Martin in Some Came Running (1958). Godard, who's onscreen briefly as Lang's AD, obviously enjoyed allowing the great German expressionist some world-weary venting about Prokosch's ilk, and the state of the industry, at one juncture lamenting of CinemaScope, "It wasn't made for people. It's only good for snakes and funerals."
With the lush locales strikingly captured with the bright palate of cinematographer Raoul Coutard, and an appropriately somber score from Georges Delerue, Godard delivered a finished work of unprecedented big-dollar polish. Still, he was only too happy to return to the autonomy of pursuing his own vision. Rescued in the late '90s by Martin Scorsese after languishing for years out of distribution, Contempt has gained another deserved crop of adherents from an entirely new generation of film aficionados.
Producer: Joseph E. Levine, Carlo Ponti, Georges de Beauregard
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard, based on the novel by Alberto Moravia
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Music: Georges Delerue, Piero Piccioni
Film Editing: Agnes Guillemot, Lila Lakshmanan
Cast: Brigitte Bardot (Camille Javal), Michel Piccoli (Paul Javal), Jack Palance (Jeremy Prokosch), Giorgia Moll (Francesca Vanini), Fritz Lang (Himself).
by Jay S. Steinberg