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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Jean-Luc Godard | Le mépris (Contempt)




PENELOPE’S DEATH

by Douglas Messerli


Jean-Luc Godard (screenplay, based on a novel, Il Dispezzo, by Alberto Moravia), Jean-Luc Godard (director) Le mépris (Contempt) / 1963 For his sixth film, Jean-Luc Godard turned to what superficially appeared as a much more commercial project. Based on a fiction by the well-known writer Alberto Moravia, this new work was supported by Hollywood and major European producers, Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti, and Joseph E. Levine. Godard even sought Hollywood actors, Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra, as his central characters, but they turned him down. When Ponti suggested his wife, Sophia Loren and Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, Godard turned them down. All producers were agreeable to his suggestion of Brigitte Bardot, as long as, Levine argued, the film contained a nude scene—good for the box office, of course.

The film, moreover, was shot in cinemascope, which was clearly not Godard’s idea; in the script actor-director Fritz Lang, almost playing himself, expresses Godard’s view of the color process: “Oh, it wasn’t meant for human beings. Just for snakes—and funerals.” And there were numerous other issues where Godard expressly did not share the producers’ concerns and ideas. Anyone hoping, accordingly, that Godard would truly make a commercial film, is in for a big disappointment. While the scenes throughout Rome and Capri are beautifully shot, revealing lush and splendorous visages not previously available in the directors’ earlier films, Godard successfully undermines the Hollywood film tropes.

In the first scene, indeed Bardot is undressed, with the camera tracking up and down across her backside, as she, almost narcissistically, queries her husband Paul Javal about his love for each of her body parts. Filmed mostly in red, while revealing, as Marcel Duchamp might put it, L.O.O.Q. (a pun for "she has a hot ass"), the color undermines most of the sexuality of the shot. When she later appears nude, a book lies across her buttocks as if replacing literature for sex.

The film is literally stuffed with references to other films and their makers, poets (Homer, Dante, Hölderlin, Brecht) and philosophers, while satirically representing the producer (Jeremy Prokosch, brilliantly played by Jack Palance) as a selfish, aphorist-spouting monster, who has no conception what film is. At an early moment in the work, after Lang mentions the Gods, Prokosch baldly proclaims: I like gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel—exactly. Lang’s witty response, says everything: “Jerry, don’t forget. The gods have created man. Man has created gods.”

Godard’s contempt, obviously, is directed at the whole commercialization of filmmaking, of which he had taken advantage to accomplish his project.

The couple we see in the very first scene, quietly reassuring one another about their deep love, is similarly affected by the brash stupidity of the commercial film world. Jerry Prokosch, apparently, has just taken over the Rome film studio, Cinecittà, and after firing nearly everyone, violently expresses his displeasure with director Lang, who is attempting to finish a film of Homer’s Odyssey. Prokosch is furious with what sees as an “art” film, instead of a sellable product, and has called upon writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to rewrite the script. Although Javal is dubious about the whole project—and the few scenes we do see might give anyone pause about working on this movie—he cannot turn down the money he is offered, he and his wife having just purchased a new condominium in Rome. Like Godard, he is clearly tempted to take the money and run, but he is certain that he can credibly restore this film into powerful work, primarily by psychologizing Odysseus and his wife Penelope.

Yet almost from the moment he signs on to the project by accepting Prokosch’s check, his entire life changes. Stopping by the studio to pick him up, Camille, his wife, introduced to Prokosch, finds herself suddenly being “turned over” to the producer, as he races off in his Alpha Romero car with her in the front seat, leaving his assistant, Francesca (Giogia Moll) and Paul to follow him by bicycle and taxi to his house. Although nothing happens in the interim, it is clear to all that Prokosch’s intentions are, as all his acts, dishonorable, and Camille is horrified by having been placed in this position. By the time Paul shows up a half-an-hour later, she is clearly angry and uncertain of everything that has proceeded in her and Paul’s relationship. And by the end of the afternoon, observing a slight sexual interchange between Francesca and Paul, she has developed what becomes the major “mépris” or contempt of the title. By the time they return home they are enveloped in a long (32 minutes of film time) fight that includes Camille’s describing her husband as an ass, a jerk, and in other disreputable terms, while he becomes more and more certain that, inexplicably, she is no longer in love with him. Godard’s presentation of this growing confrontation, although somewhat tragic, is also comic, as they move about their new Roman paradise, Paul always with a hat on his head, in an infantile imitation of actor Dean Martin in Some Came Running, and Bardot donning a black wig. Both are hiding something, clearly, that even they cannot quite comprehend. Godard cinematically expresses this incompleteness of their lives by having them move about the still unfinished condominium, climbing through door frames without glass, and moving in and out of empty, unpainted rooms. As Camille reveals in a voiceover, “I’ve noticed the more we doubt, the more we cling to a false reality made murky.”

By that evening, Paul comprehends, he has become Odysseus, about to set out away from his Penelope, while Camille has become the Penelope of whom he wants to write, a woman who had already broken with Odysseus before he left, which accounts for remaining away for ten long years. The question is, can her survive with the ill-will of his Poseidon, the producer Prokosch? In Godard’s version of the myth, however, the problem is not only that Odysseus has left his Penelope in the hands of other suitors, but still refuses to move on by himself, desperately trying to get her to change her mind about their suddenly floundering relationship. And the rest of the film, as the two join Prokosch and Lang in filming on the island of Capri, is filled with their friction, as each expresses his or her anger before retreating, time and again, with a smile or sudden token of their former esteem. Yet, even when Paul, a guest in Prokosch’s villa, rails out against the whole filmmaking project, the couple knows, along with the audience, that there can be no going back.

If Paul will not leave for his journey, Camille knows that she must, and with Prokosch driving, heads off to Rome, where she is determined to return to her career as a typist. But unlike the events of the Odyssey, Poseidon destroys her instead of her husband, his breakneck driving ending both their lives in a crash with a big rig. Godard’s 20th century Odysseus is, like so many of us, a man who instead of leaving on a series of marvelous adventures, has been completely unable to act. And he returns to his Ithaca, Rome, with even less of a life than he has had at the beginning.


Los Angeles, April 1, 2011

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