The One about Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”

With Jean-Luc Godard spearheading the French New Wave after many of his other contemporaries have been forgotten, Italian film producer Carlo Ponti and Jean-Luc Godard began work on the film “Le Mepris” (Contempt) in 1963. A film that would be an adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel “The Ghost at Noon” and also would be Godard’s first foray to what can be seen as a commercial film with celebrities, but done the Jean-Luc Godard way.

Known as probably one of Godard’s more accessible films, despite known for working with his wife Anna Karina for many of his films prior to “Le Mepris”, as the film was being looked at as a film to attract international attention, the most photographed woman in the world at the time, Brigitte Bardot, is featured in the film. Alongside actors Michel Piccoli (“Dillinger is Dead”), Jack Palance and Giorga Moll. Also, the film would mark a collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard and one of his favorite director’s Fritz Lang (“Metropolis”, “M”, “Die Nibelungen”) who will be playing the character of a director with the same name and also would reunite Godard with French New Wave’s Jacques Rozier (who would direct two documentaries that relate to the film “Contempt”).

“Contempt” is the film in which Godard was given the opportunity to nearly work the big budget Hollywood-style film that he had always dreamed of. Working with one of the most popular woman in the planet, Brigitte Bardot and the talented Michel Piccoli and to work alongside his favorite director Fritz Lang. It seemed as if “Contempt” would be the film that would generate the highest buzz and a dream that would be realized.

The fact is that “Contempt” is a popular Godard film especially for cinema fans who are appreciative of Godard oeuvre. But the film didn’t do well in Europe nor did it make money in the box office. In fact, the film received 50/50 reviews of from film critics who loved it and those who disliked it and found it too pretentious.

Personally, I found “Contempt” to be a wonderful and artistic film from Godard in which he was put on the pedestal by producers especially American film and distributor Joseph E. Levine who appears to have probably never watched a Godard film and only known his name through the popularity of the French New Wave. The fact is that Godard does his films his way and his style and so, “Contempt” behind-the-scenes was much more messier than anyone including Godard would ever realize.

Brigitte Bardot was not known for her acting but yet she was the most popular woman in the world. She was defiant, rebellious and like Godard, did things her way. And for those familiar with Godard films, his style is not to rehearse and usually keep his talents in the dark by not giving them a script. But at the time, Bardot was looking for the role to get away from the kitschy films that she had worked previously and wanted to be taken seriously as an actress. Problem is that she brought an entourage that the filmmaker and the crew had problems dealing with, she also brought paparazzi that Godard never had to deal with and because she was treated so specially, her rule was that she would not film early in the morning which caused problems with scheduling.

As for actor Jack Palance, he came into the film not knowing much about Jean-Luc Godard but knew about the novel that the film was adapted from and was excited about his role until he found out that Godard changed the screenplay which upset Palance and also not used to Godard’s style of directing, Palance was infuriated by Godard just telling him what to do and making sure that he didn’t do what the director suggested until he received a reason why he was doing what he was being told. This was not Hollywood as Palance was sure to find out and this added more stress to the filmmaker and the crew.

In fact, Palance told L’Express, “We never know in advance what we’re going to do. There’s almost no dialogue. It’s the worst experience I’ve ever had! It’s madness!”.

But behind-the-scenes, the marriage turmoil between Jean-Luc Godard and wife Anna Karina was taking shape and the screenplay of “Le Mepris” (Contempt) was starting to become a film about Jean-Luc Godard and his life with Anna Karina. As Godard films are known to project the director into his characters, “Contempt” was a film in which Michel Piccoli was playing Godard and Bardot was playing Karina.

Piccoli said in an interview with “Realites”, “The male character in ‘Contempt’ is Godard. He wanted me to wear his tie, his hat and his shoes”. Godard’s cinematographer Raoul Coutard even said, “I am convinced that in ‘Contempt’ he is trying to explain something to his wife.”

In fact, the words that were used in the film were words used by Karina. The dark wig that Bardot wore in the film was similar to the black wig that Karina wore in “Vivre sa Vie” and the exclamation point that “Contempt” was a film that embodied Godard and Karina’s relationship was Bardot’s comment in “Initiales B.B.” in which she said, “Godard told me that I had to be filmed with my back to the camera, and to walk away from it, straight ahead. I rehearsed, and he wasn’t happy. I asked him why. Because he said, my manner was not the same as Anna Karina’s!”.

Needless to say, the harmonious featurette on the DVD by Jacques Rozier showing the happy working relationship between Godard and Bardot was certainly specious. And to make things even more complicated that after the film was made, the producers were not satisfied as they wanted more nudity, more of Brigitte Bardot’s derriere in the film. After so much arguments and even certain version of the film in which Godard’s name was taken off the credits (it’s important to note that producer Carlo Ponti was trying to get Francois Truffaut in replacing Godard, especially since Godard was not replying to producer/distributor Levine’s telegrams in to making the film more erotic.

So, in essence “Contempt” was a not only a film that showed contempt onscreen, behind-the-scenes of the making of the film, there was plenty of it. This was Godard’s test and perhaps his only taste of creating a film with such a high budget (despite most of that budget going towards Bardot, Palance and Lang) and once again, Godard showing that he would buckle to his producers and would create the film that he wanted. No compromises.

The fact is that “Contempt” because of the nature of what went on behind-the-scenes in making this film, is a sore point to Godard and even the producers, especially Levine and both men are in awe of how popular this film is still received by cinema fans of today. Nearly 50-years since the release of this film in the theaters, the interest in “Contempt” has not waned. More and more people who have discovered Godard’s oeuvre have found “Contempt” to perfectly show the conflict of a husband and wife and it seems improbable for many people to think that one can have contempt towards a significant other in the manner that is displayed in the film but the fact is, Godard was having these issues in his personal life.

His connection to cinema is his passion, as the character of Paul. His life is embodied in cinema but their significant others are not. And for “Contempt”, the film deviates from the novel as the premise of the screenwriter working on the film “Odyssey” has now been changed. In “Contempt”, Paul is the rewriter of the film that is being shot by Fritz Lang. In the novel, the director uses “Odyssey” to showcase the deterioration of the couple but not in “Contempt”. The dictator-ish American producer is the one wanting to make “Contempt” commercially viable. As Godard was using Paul and Camille as characters based on him and Karina, was Prokosch his way of giving the middle finger to American producer/distributor Joseph E. Levine? Quite possibly.

And that is what I enjoyed about “Contempt” and Godard’s filmmaking. Although for “Contempt”, the film was a compromise as Godard was literally pushed into the corner by the producers and had to compromise in trying to bring those erotic images of Bardot to the screen although not the way Levine had wanted it, but this was Godard’s recognition that the years of the Hollywood film that he once watched and the artistic freedom that director’s once had was no more. The dream that he had always wanted to become part of as a fan of cinema was fully learned by the director that his entry to a big budget film in which have artistic freedom wasn’t going to happen.

But for those of us who watch this film and knowing what Godard was able to accomplish, especially with three angry producers and the talent he had been given, we can only judge what we see onscreen. For Godard-ites, we recognize the pain and the breakdown of the relationship of Godard and Karina, like we recognize Godard dying at the hands of Karina twice in the film “Made in U.S.A.”. I found this film to be visual poetry and a highlight in Godard’s career.

But overall, “Le Mepris” (Contempt) is a film worthy of having in your cinema collection. If you are a fan of Godard films, personally, this is a must-see film.