Restored 'Contempt' is Godard at his most accessible

October 24, 1997|By Henry Sheehan | Henry Sheehan,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

There's a scene in Jean-Luc Godard's masterful 1963 feature, "Contempt," now re-released in a gorgeous restored version, in which some characters are sitting in a screening room watching rushes of the film they're working on, an adaptation of the story of Ulysses.

The director, Fritz Lang, played by Lang, is enjoying his shots of Greek sculpture; a newly hired screenwriter, Paul Javel (Michel Piccoli), is intrigued, wondering why he was hired. But the movie's vulgar American producer, Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance), perks up only when he sees some images of topless mermaids flickering on the screen.

If you think that's a heavy-handed way of satirizing a movie mogul, consider this: After Godard finished shooting the movie, its American producer, Joseph E. Levine (probably the basis for Prokosch), and its Italian producer, Carlo Ponti (whom Godard didn't like any more than he liked Levine), insisted that Godard shoot a new opening for the movie, featuring its main star, Brigitte Bardot, nude in bed with Piccoli, the point being to recoup the cost of hiring her in the first place (Bardot was then at the height of her celebrity).

Godard agreed to the demand, yet turned the situation entirely to his advantage. In the scene, Bardot, playing Paul's wife, Camille, inventories her body, as Godard's camera almost majestically pans and tracks over the contours of the justly famed Bardot body. But Godard alters the shots through red, white and blue filters, diluting the eroticism in favor of more distance and nuance.

What's going on is a misunderstanding, a state Godard considered a "modern phenomenon." The husband and wife are now beyond the flush of their first lustful enthusiasms, and space is opening up between them. In that space is room for misunderstanding, a misunderstanding that leads to a contempt for her husband on Camille's part, a confused and ambivalent reaction by Paul, and a tragic ending in peculiarly modern circumstances.

In what is still the most conventional movie Godard made, he plumbed not just the condition of particular style of "international" filmmaking, but a romantic malaise that is now so much a part of the contemporary emotional landscape that hardly anyone comments on it anymore.

Although "Contempt" is one of the most accessible of Godard's films, it also pays insistent attention to the conditions of its own production. The movie even opens with a shot of a large camera tracking down toward the front of the frame as it follows an actress. When it gets nearest to us in the audience, it swivels, its wide- screen lens suddenly facing us, making the audience the movie's parallel subject.

So, too, does Godard keep referring to the Technicolor process, making sure that all items of the decor come in the bright reds, blues and yellows that are that process' building blocks. Finally, the movie is full of open references to other films. All this keeps the story from sinking into itself as a mass of contradictions; instead, it lends it great clarity.

"Contempt" ends in tragedy, both psychological and, in a sense, epochal. Godard can be frustrating to some audiences because he never wraps things up too neatly; often some of the questions he asks go begging.

But the questions are the really great ones of our time, those that impinge on our moral and social selves. And the elegance of their posing at least suggests a road to their answers.

"Contempt" is playing at the Charles, in rotation with "Ernesto Che Guevara: The Bolivian Diary."


Starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Released by Strand Releasing/Rialto Pictures

Rating Unrated (nudity, sexuality)

Sun score: ****

Pub Date: 10/24/97

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