The very first shot of “Contempt” is something of a mind trick. From off in the distance, it looks like we’re seeing a few small children, running with the wind, as one of them holds a white balloon. It is a moment of simplicity and freedom. Suddenly, as the children get closer, we see that these are no children.
What it really is is a man holding a boom mic, and a camera on a track following a wandering woman. We are not in reality right now. Welcome to the world of movies, within this movie.
“Contempt” was released in 1963, riding toward the end of the brilliant French New Wave. It makes sense, as in a way it seems to encapsulate the new feelings toward the art of cinema in the era.
The story focuses on struggling screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli). Javal is invited to Italy by American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to write a screenplay for a new version of “The Odyssey.” Prokosch is having some creative struggles with the film’s director, Fritz Lang (Lang plays himself). Paul reluctantly accepts, hoping that writing this screenplay will give him the money to pay for his apartment. While Paul finds himself struggling with Prokosch, he also struggles to keep his marriage with the beautiful Camille (Bridgitte Bardot) from falling apart.
“Contempt” is one of those movies that’s about making movies. While most movies of this nature focus on biting the hand that feeds it, “Contempt” only takes nibbles. It seems more sad than angry. Paul must give up the sanity of his life just to get this screenplay done. And what is he doing it for? Just the money?
I wouldn’t be surprised if director Jean-Luc Godard faced these conflicts himself while making his films. Each film he made expresses some form of the audacity of the New Wave. “Contempt” takes it to a new level. The images of Camille’s nude form may be among the first in cinematic history. This was something that could never be done in American movies at the time, thanks to the Hays Code. Along with this, there are also a few grizzly images of violence, and a scene where Camille spews out a list of curse words. This scene is somewhat funny; it’s like Godard’s way of showing off that this is his film, and he can do whatever he pleases with it.
Then again that’s also sort of the theme of the French New Wave: that the film is in the hands of the director. The director is the author of the film. And Godard, of course, is a fine director. Every shot of “Contempt” is filled with the utmost passion. Godard makes brilliant uses of tracking shots and long shots. Also, he uses the objects within the film such as statues and walls to emphasize character relationships. The bizarre version of “The Odyssey” contains shots of the camera staring at statues of the gods. Meanwhile, as Paul stands on one side of a wall and Camille on the other, we can already tell this relationship is going south. And of course, the shots of the rocky Italian coast are absolutely breathtaking.
While Godard is a great filmmaker, he never seems to get inside his characters’ heads. Each one can often seem a bit trite and artificial. Maybe he did that on purpose here, as most of the people are well, trite and artificial. In the New Wave era, Godard was the master of technique and Truffaut was the master of character.
However, one character in “Contempt” doesn’t feel artificial: Paul. Godard makes him out to be like Odysseus. Like Odysseus, he’s strong-willed yet the forces of nature seem to be against him as he tries to achieve his goals. But unlike Odysseus, there is no loyal wife at home waiting for him.