Saturday, 28 May 2016

Jean-Luc Godard on ‘Contempt’ (Le Mépris)

Contempt (Directed by Jean-Luc Godard)
The exigencies of making a movie with a comparatively large budget and stars, based on a well-known writer’s novel, limited the experimental-collage side of Godard and forced him to focus on getting across a linear narrative, in the process drawing more psychologically complex, rounded characters. Godardians regard Contempt as an anomaly, the master’s most orthodox movie. The paradox is that it is also his finest. Pierrot le Fou may be more expansive, Breathless and Masculine Feminine more inventive, but in Contempt Godard was able to strike his deepest human chords. 

If the film is a record of disenchantment, it is also a seductive bouquet of enchantments: Bardot’s beauty, primary colors, luxury objects, nature. Contempt marked the first time that Godard went beyond the oddly-beautiful poetry of cities and revealed his romantic, unironic love of landscapes. The cypresses on Prokosch’s estate exquisitely frame Bardot and Piccoli. Capri sits in the Mediterranean, a jewel in a turquoise setting. The last word in the film is Lang’s assistant director (played by Godard himself) calling out, Action! – after which the camera pans to a tranquilly static ocean. The serene classicism of sea and sky refutes the thrashings of men.  

– Phillip Lopate on Contempt, The New York Times, June 22, 1997.

The following extract is from a 1963 interview with Jean-Luc Godard on the adaptation of Contempt from the novel by Alberto Moravia.

Moravia’s novel is a nice, vulgar one for a train journey, full of classical, old-fashioned sentiments in spite of the modernity of the situations. But it is with this kind of novel that one can often make the best films.

I have stuck to the main theme, simply altering a few details, on the principle that something filmed is automatically different from something written, and therefore original. There was no need to make it different, to adapt it to the screen. All I had to do was film it as it is: just film what was written, apart from a few details; for if the cinema were not first and foremost film, it wouldn’t exist. Méliès is the greatest, but without Lumière he would have languished in obscurity.

Apart from a few details. For instance, the transformation of the hero who, in passing from book to screen, moves from false adventure to real, from Antonioni inertia to Laramiesque dignity. For instance also, the nationality of the characters: Brigitte Bardot is no longer called Emilia but Camille, and as you will see she trifles nonetheless with Musset. Each of the characters, moreover, speaks his own language which, as in The Quiet American, contributes to the feeling of people lost in a strange country. Here, though, two days only: an afternoon in Rome, a morning in Capri. Rome is the modern world, the West; Capri, the ancient world, nature before civilization and its neuroses. Contempt, in other words, might have been called In Search of Homer, but it means lost time trying to discover the language of Proust beneath that of Moravia, and anyway that isn’t the point.

The point is that these are people who look at each other and judge each other, and then are in turn looked at and judged by the cinema – represented by Fritz Lang, who plays himself, or in effect the conscience of the film, its honesty. (I filmed the scenes of The Odyssey which he was supposed to be directing, but as I play the role of his assistant, Lang will say that these are scenes made by his second unit.)

When I think about it, Contempt seems to me, beyond its psychological study of a woman who despises her husband, the story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity who, like the heroes of Verne and Stevenson, one day reach a mysterious deserted island, whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth that is to say. Whereas the Odyssey of Ulysses was a physical phenomenon, I filmed a spiritual odyssey: the eye of the camera watching these characters in search of Homer replaces that of the gods watching over Ulysses and his companions.

A simple film without mystery, an Aristotelian film, stripped of appearances, Contempt proves in 149 shots that in the cinema as in life there is no secret, nothing to elucidate, merely the need to live – and to make films.

– From an interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, August 1963 (collected in Godard on Godard, edited by Tom Milne, Da Capo Press, 1986) 

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