Le Mepris (France-Italy, 1963)

Cine-literate sexiness

Cine-literate sexiness

Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Screenplay: Alberto Moravia and Jean-Luc Godard (uncredited)
Music: Georges Delarue
Producers: Carlo Ponti, Georges de Beauregard and Joseph Levine
Cinematographer: Raoul Coutard
Cast: Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang

Jean-Luc Godard has one of the most varied filmographies. Starting as a critic on Cahiers du Cinema he made his first film, A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), as a homage to Hollywood. Although Le Mepris was made only three years later, it was his fifth feature and the closest he got to being able to making a Hollywood movie.

Le Mepris could have been a movie in the Hollywood style, it had two of the biggest French stars of the day, Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot; the well known American actor Jack Palance; was based a novel of the respected writer Alberto Moravia; had a shooting budget of over $1m. However, Godard was already rethinking the way he made movies and Le Mepris became a film about the movie industry as well as the portrayal of a disintegrating marriage.

The film was backed by three big producers: American Joseph Levine; the Italian Carlo Ponti; the French Georges de Beauregard. Levine insisted upon a nude scene with Bardot as a way of making the film commercially attractive. Godard obliged but made the scene self-reflexive as Bardot’s character, Camille, asks her husband what parts of her body he likes and the scene was filmed using a variety of colour filters, as well as ordinary light, which draws attention to the artifice of what we’re seeing. The audience is not going to be allowed to enjoy the sight of Bardot’s body in a straightforward manner. Godard used a similar technique in British Sounds (1969) where a shot of a woman’s crotch is held in close-up for a few minutes.

The title sequence introduces Le Mepris’s self-reflexivity as it consists of seeing a camera tracking before turning to face the audience. The narrative is also self-reflexive as it concerns the conflict between art and commerce, a schism that Godard himself was struggling with. The story focuses on the filming of a version of Homer’s Odyssey directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself, a director who, it has been argued, compromised his art when he moved to Hollywood). In contrast to Lang, the venal producer Jeremy Prokosch (Palance), keeps insisting on more ‘sex’ and less art. Godard plays Lang’s assistant.

The faltering marriage of Paul and Camille is dramatised in a long scene in their apartment where the camera tracks restlessly so door frames and rooms to divide the couple (there’s a similarly long scene between a couple in  A bout de souffle). The interpreter, who translates for Palance, further emphasises the difficulties of communication and parallels Pauls and Camille’s mutual incomprehension as their marriage deteriorates. Their lack of communication is paralleled by the different desires of the filmmakers:

[the film is] a relentless examination of the politics of film production, the compromises one must make (and must not make) in order to realize one’s dream, and the  gap of communication between the self and others in both personal and professional relationships. (Dixon, 1997, page forty eight)

Le Mepris was made just as Godard was developing into a more pedagogical filmmaker. Within a few years his didactic style would predominate (though, to an extent, he reverted to more conventionally arthouse cinema with Slow Motion (Sauve qui peut (la vie), 1979) as post-’68 filmmaking became suspicious of entertainment. In Le Mepris, however, there is much emotional pleasure to be had from the sumptuous cinematography and Georges Delarue’s score.

Wheeler Winston Dixon (1997) The Films of Jean-Luc Godard (State of New York University Press: Albany)

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2 Responses

  1. […] Le Mepris could have been a movie in the Hollywood style, it had two of the biggest French stars of the day, Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot ; the well known American actor Jack Palance; was based a novel of the respected writer …Continue Reading… […]

  2. Le Mépris has to be one of the most beautiful films ever made. All of it is gorgeous, including BB, Capri, Delerue’s score, the cinematography…a great film, really. Although I could understand if some people get kinda bored by it. Godard is sometimes hard to stand, that I’ll admit. I still love him, though.

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