Thin plot and unsympathetic characters invite contempt for “Contempt”

Jean-Luc Godard, “Contempt” (1963)

Partly set among some stunningly postcard-perfect islands rising out of the Mediterranean Sea, “Contempt” is a great-looking film that showcases the young Brigitte Bardot as a serious actor but that’s about all it has going for it. It struggles under the weight of being at once a psychological portrait¬†of a marriage breaking down, a commentary on film-making and film culture, a re-interpretation of ancient Greek myth and an investigation of the position of artists and intellectuals torn between devotion to their art and living in a society that doesn’t share their beliefs but values art as a mere commodity. The movie’s major focus centres on the married couple Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Bardot) in their apartment misunderstanding each other and bickering, and then escalating their fight to the point of separation without ever really understanding why and making themselves miserable. This follows earlier scenes in which Paul, a struggling playwright, is employed by a rich playboy American movie producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite a script for a movie based on the ancient Greek epic “The Odyssey”, with Fritz Lang (Lang as himself) directing, into something more racy and juicy. Paul agrees and takes the money, and Prokosch invites him and Camille to his estate for afternoon drinks. There, the American brazenly flirts with Camille yet Paul barely flickers an eyelid in reaction.

In their arguments, Camille and Paul expose their insecurities and prejudices that suggest their marriage had always been doomed from the start: Camille is sensitive about her lack of education and culture and believes that Paul thinks she’s stupid; Paul persists in arguing in an intellectual way, failing to see Camille might be testing him and setting little traps for him, ignoring her little gestures of conciliation, and bullying her by calling her jealous; she accuses him of selling out to a “film crowd” (which he has done, by taking Prokosch’s cheque); he, for all his belief in his intellectual superiority over Camille, misinterprets her statements, lashes out at her emotionally and never acknowledges that she might be right in some of what she says and that he might be wrong or have done her an injustice. The contempt that Camille develops for Paul is the result of a head-on collision between two mismatched people, one insecure about her new place in a self-absorbed world and feeling unwanted, the other having dragged her into it with no thought for how they can both cope individually and together in that world with its contradictory demands. The tragedy for them both is that, having fought and fallen apart, they become vulnerable to the desires of that world which separates them, forever as it turns out.

A parallel sub-plot in which various characters re-interpret “The Odyssey” as a story in which Odysseus has left his wife Penelope to fight in the Trojan war and then to travel for several years because they no longer love each other, or Penelope has been unfaithful, or Odysseus simply wishes to avoid Penelope, as a counter-weight to Paul and Camille’s marital problems, runs through the movie. The “Odyssey” movie production serves as a convenient coat-hanger for Prokosch, Paul and Camille to offload their feelings and opinions about human relationships without admitting them directly to one another. At the same time they appear to have no great enthusiasm for the movie and only Lang seems to care, even to the extent of continuing and finishing filming after Prokosch and Camille become decidedly “off-screen”. Paul is left alone without any anchor after filming finishes and silence is called for.

The artist having to choose between self-integrity and self-betrayal; people who should be united tearing themselves apart and becoming easy victims of a rapacious world; the idea of a film within a film that mirrors and comments on thoughts, feelings and behaviour expressed outside it; the film world as a meat market where script-writers and directors prostitute themselves before producers: these are hardly original ideas though the easy and subtle way in which they have been combined is original. Bardot and Piccoli are good in the way they bring out their characters’ fears, beliefs, prejudices and misunderstandings of each other and their relationship without over-acting or emotional histrionics. It could be said though that by letting one person (Prokosch) upset their relationship so much, Camille and Paul already aren’t sure of each other’s loyalty: the movie’s opening bedroom scene in which Camille demands total love from Paul and he replies glibly suggests as much.

Palance does a fine turn as the brash, crass American producer Prokosch, throwing his weight around and seducing Camille; he may be evil in the sense of preying on and exploiting Camille’s weaknesses to pull her away from Paul though there is just a suggestion in the petrol station scene that he might be more sensitive and sympathetic to her than her husband has been so far. Had Godard played up this aspect of Prokosch putting on an “ugly American” act to cover up his own fears about being an uncultured outsider in a supposedly more cultured and artistic environment, and shown him to be a potentially better person than Paul, the movie’s themes would have had an emotional fillip that would intrigue audiences, and Camille’s choice might have said something about Camille’s own values. Is Camille as much a sell-out on her integrity as she accuses Paul of being on his?

The structure of “Contempt”, divided in the main between the suffocating insular reality of the married couple’s apartment and the open natural spaces of Capri island, promising freedom and opportunties that Camille grabs, seems lopsided between the minutiae of the couple’s private lives which they pick over like scabs and the real dangers that face them once they are on the film set. On Capri, Paul sees Prokosch and Camille kissing each other but seems not to care; his reaction and behaviour will appear inexplicable to most viewers as at the same time he seems smug or resigned about having sold out on his artistic ideals and isn’t losing sleep over the harm he’s done to them and Camille’s view of him as a sell-out. While Camille, who originally hadn’t wanted to go to Capri, spends time sunbathing and swimming, Paul does nothing. By the end of the film, Paul may still be unaware of what’s happened to Camille and Prokosch but even if he did know, he may not care anyway. Like Odysseus in “The Odyssey”, trying to find his home, Paul is doomed to find a “home” in the film world without values or someone who can provide an anchor.

Colourful with some great visual scenery in both the apartment, adorned in a modern style at the time (early 1960’s), and in the scenes set on the islands, the film is worth seeing once but perhaps no more. The plot is thin and scrappy and doesn’t allow much character development in Camille, Paul and Prokosch who remain archetypes representing aspects of the film’s themes. Viewers won’t feel much connection with the male characters but might feel sympathy and pity for Camille who on the whole is treated badly by the men. As Paul does very little apart from mouthing off at Camille, the theme of the artist’s place in a society not sympathetic to ideals such as artistic integrity is superficially explored. If the film’s opinion is that the values of Hollywood aren’t to be trusted compared to those of art, then Paul is a poor choice of champion for art and the possibility that the film world can be reformed or improved in any way remains remote.

Come to think of it, with all due respect for Godard’s ideals, if Hollywood had made “Contempt”, the story might push a stronger line on the artist’s place in society: it might not reflect the reality in the Hollywood film industry itself but it would put more backbone and integrity¬†into Paul. For a start, he’d tell Prokosch to shove his cheque up his butt …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.