By Lincoln MacKinnon
Jean-Luc Godard once said, “I am a whore fighting the pimps of cinema” (Busack 1997, para. 8). In Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), Godard systematically deploys a number of unconventional devices (thematic and technical), to mount a critique on the standardization, commoditization and exploitative nature of conventional cinema. Through creating multiple dualities, metaphors, inter-textual references, and parallels with his own life as a filmmaker, Godard effectively rebels against the established film conventions that dominate cinema. Self consciously aware that he himself inhabits this ‘world’, and is, in affect, an “ideological product of the system” (Camolli & Narboni 1999, p.753), Contempt exhibits a high level of self-reflexivity, using technical devices to draw attention to the highly mediated and constructed nature of film. This self-awareness, effectively works as a communication between Godard and the viewer, encouraging an active, philosophical reflection on film and life itself, as apposed to the passive, closed narrative and homogenized experience inflicted by mainstream cinema.
In what is essentially “an epic documentary about the world of cinema” (Guaner 1967, p.60), by adapting and recreating Alberto Moravia’s novel ‘Il Disprezzo’ (A Ghost at Noon), which details a directors struggle to create a film on Homer’s Odyssey, Godard has created a ‘film within a film’. Unlike his previous works, Contempt is shot in color and cinemascope, and boasts, by Godard’s standards, a big budget – which allowed for the inclusion of the international star persona’s ‘Bridget Bardot’ and ‘Jack Polance’. It is within this commoditized environment, at the mercy of the producers, that Godard’s ‘Contempt’ becomes personalized, and therefore, his battle for art over commerce gains greater pertinence. The very title ‘Contempt’ explains not only Camille’s (Bridgitte Bardot) ‘contempt’ for protagonist Paul (Michel Piccoli), and Godard’s ‘contempt’ for the ideological confines of cinema, but also for himself – as “the worst sort of cinema sinner, one who betrays his own artistic sense” (Brody 2008, p.161), by working within mainstream cinema.
Set in Rome, and dominated by the primary colors; blue, red and yellow, the opening sequence of Contempt features a wide-angled (cinemascope), long take composition, of a Mitchell camera (controlled by Raoul Coutard) and film crew, tracking the movements of ‘Francesca’ (Giorgia Moll) as she walks past the Cinecitta. In an expository and self-reflexive manner, reminiscent of Orson Welles’s ending of The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942) (Guaner, 1967), Godard reads out the opening credits of the film. The voice-over then quotes, “’The cinema’, said Andre Bazin, ‘substitutes for our look a world which conforms to our desires.’ Contempt is a story of this world”. Consequently, “cinema itself becomes the object of the shot” (Farocki 1998, p.33), drawing the audience’s attention to the inherently contrived nature of film. By quoting Bazin, a revered critic of the ‘old cinema’, Godard is essentially celebrating the world of the ‘old’ and ‘real’ cinema – of which Bazin praised for its authenticity and innovation. Similarly, the long take composition, documentary style aesthetic, and extreme self awareness of this opening shot, is akin to Roberto Rossellini and Italian Neo-realism, of which Bazin was a major supporter.
Godard’s extension of Neo-realism as ‘hypo-neo-realism’, works as a comment on how cinema has become superficial in it’s construction, and needs to turn inwards to find its true essence. As the now, high angled, mitchell camera tracks forward and stops in front of Godard’s low angled camera (through which the audience ‘looks’), the Mitchell camera then pans and tilts downwards to face directly at the “extra-diegetic” (Farocki 1998, p.33) camera, and audience. This breaking of the fourth wall essentially destroys “the visual impunity” (Bersani 2004, p.34) audiences are accustomed to and enjoy when watching films. By doing so, Godard draws attention to mainstream cinemas superficiality; making it explicit that filmmaking is a highly mediated and constructed process. Thus, prompting the audience to consider their own, primarily passive, relationship to film, and its prevailing ideologies.
As if in direct conversation with the opening scene, by conforming “to our desires” (Bazin, in Contempt), the audience is presented with a high angled shot (as if coming from the Mitchell camera from the previous scene), of a naked Bridget Bardot (Camille) lying in bed with Paul. This mirroring of camera angles, posits the viewer as an active participant, in the voyeuristic act of looking at Bardot as “an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (Mulvey 1992, p.26). Unmotivated by typical Hollywood style emotional or narrative devices, Godard presents this scene as a kind of ironic voyeurism, a “subversive comment on the exploitation of the woman’s body in cinema” (Loshtizki 1995, p.140). Told by Contempt’s American producer Joseph E Levine, that in order to get their moneys worth, they needed a scene featuring ‘the naked Bardot’ (Guaner, 1967), Godard responded with a representation of Bardot’s body that “connotes art rather than sexuality” (Farocki 1998, p.34). By featuring Bardot’s iconic naked body (filling the full length of cinemascope frame), as the opening image of the ‘story world’ of Contempt, Godard draws attention to the sex-obsessed, exploitative nature of Hollywood cinema.
Prompting the audience to different ways of seeing, Godard presents Bardot’s naked body through a series of the colored filters: red, white and blue. This again works not only as an artistic expression, but to make the audience aware that they are watching a film, and hence, question their role as an active participant in the film. Being the colors of the French national flag, Godard stylistically presents Bardot’s naked buttocks as “a French national treasure” (Brody 2008, p.170), a cultural commodity to be pimped out for entertainment. This highlights the prostitution and commoditization of ‘the female body’, by the ‘modern’ cinematic industry. This is essentially Godard’s way of defying the exploitative demands of cinema, while also retaining and enhancing his own artistic merit. Here, Godard uses his work, as a medium for his criticism of the ideologies inherent in cinema, and is essentially rebelling against the “packaging and sexual exploitation of women” (Busack 1997, para. 8). With the demands from Godard’s capitalistic producers, and his established reputation as a ‘Pioneer of French New Wave’ cinema, this scene can likewise be viewed as a protest against cinema’s “packaging and exploitation of any image, especially his own” (Busack 1997, para. 8). It is precisely these ideologies, conventions and cinematic exploitations that Godard wishes to destroy – in order to make way for a new, innovative and ‘free’ cinema.
Through the casting of cinematic stereotypes, inter-textual references, and witty dialogue, Godard both laments the demise of the ‘old cinema’ – full of creativity and artistic integrity, and fears for its capitalistic, and culturally homogenized future. Outside the Cinecitta in Rome, both Paul (a playwright, screenwriter, and archetype of Godard himself), and the viewer are introduced to the character of Jerry Prokosch (Jack Polance), a sleazy, controlling and culturally inept American producer, who is funding the film production of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. Known for his role in films such as ‘Shane’ (George Stevens, 1953), where he plays a gun toting, domineering psychopath, Godard’s choice of the packaged, all-American cultural export and star persona of ‘Jack Polance’, works as the perfect vehicle to reinforce his negative views and stereotypes of ‘the heavy-handed Producer’, and their commoditization of art.
Shot from a low angle, as if witnessing a king preaching from his throne, Prokosch asserts his authority over Paul and Francesca by imparting his cultural words of wisdom – “yesterday there were kings here…all kinds of real human beings”. With the documentary style aesthetics, the backdrop of the desolated Italian cinemas, and Prokosch’s words echoing aloud, Godard implicitly describes both ‘the death of Italian neo-realism’, and the “American cultural imperialism” (Lev 1993, P.88) that dominates film. As Prokosch further dramatically declares (in English), “It is my last kingdom”, Francesca’s translation for Paul (in French) produces a different meaning, “Cast la fin du cinema’ (It is the end of cinema)” (Brody 2008, p.172). This translation is not only Godard’s way of explicitly asserting that ‘the end of cinema’ is upon us, but also highlights how details can be ‘lost in translation’ – where one culture has the ability to misinterpret or dominate another.
By introducing a number of dualities: art vs commerce, producer vs director, old vs new and American vs German, Godard explores the themes of destruction and corruption within the cinema industry. As the characters move inside the Italian cinema to view rushes from ‘The Odyssey’, ‘Fritz Lang’ (Fritz Lang), director of ‘The Odyssey’, is awaiting the approval, or inevitable criticism, of the material by Prokosch. Lang is a complete embodiment of everything that, for Godard, ‘was’ real in cinema; he is intelligent, creative, moralistic, authentic and witty. By simply incorporating Lang in the film, Godard is paying homage to the legendary “mythic directors” (Loshitzki 1995, p.138) and pioneers of the ‘old cinema’, that Godard essentially longs for. Conversely, Prokosch represents what modern cinema has become – commoditized, standardized and impersonalized, with a complete distancing from the ‘old’ age of authenticity.
The paralleled screen world (Lang’s world, the ‘old world’) of ‘The Odyssey’, features statues of ‘mythical’ Gods, which, through movement of the camera, ‘Lang’ is able to create the illusion of them coming to life, as if Godard has attempted to bring back the days of the old, pure ‘world’. However, with their painted eyes, and Prokosh’s ironic interjections (“I like Gods, I know exactly how they feel”), much like the modern directors and producers, their eyes “have lost the ability to look” (Russell 1995, p.149). Prokosch’s orgasmic like reaction to the naked ‘Penelope’ (in The Odyssey), and his child-like rejection of Lang’s artistic creation, contests to the preoccupation (and requirement) of modern cinema with sex, and the prioritizing of money over art.
“You shouldn’t view art from a purely commercial point of view, because as soon as you do, it becomes something else…culture” (Godard, in Bellour 1992, p.162). With little attempt at civil communication, with the equally defiant Fritz Lang, like any cash wielding capitalist, Prokosch throws money at the problem, alluring Paul to re-write scenes from The Odyssey. As Prokosch remarks, “Whenever I hear the world culture, I get out my cheque book”, Godard is again referring to the “packaging” (Busack 1997, para. 8) and commoditization of art and talent, and the streamlining of cinematic culture. Furthermore, it “reinforces Godard’s portrayal of the new film maker as a prostitute” (Lushtizski 1995, p.141), who’s artistic integrity is easily bought and sold. Most strikingly however, it is a pertinent reference to notorious Nazi, Joseph Goebbels, who once said, “when I hear the world culture I get out my revolver” (Loshtiizki 1995, p.141). Not only is this quotation an implicit reference to the ‘death’ of innovation and culture in cinema, but also a reference to Fritz Lang himself, who was propositioned by Goebbels during Nazi Germany to make propagandist films (which Lang rejected by fleeing the country)(Guaner, 1967). Unlike Paul, and Godard himself, this quotation honors Lang’s admirable and moralistic stance, and his literal objection to (Nazi Germany’s) ‘streamlining of culture’.
In an attempt to counteract this plateau of innovation and culture, throughout Contempt, “a deliberate reflexivity constantly asserts itself” (Aumont 1990, p.223) as Godard incorporates unconventional, narrative and technical devices. The memorable scene shot in the apartment, where Paul and Camille niggle at each other, is typical of Godard’s “refusal of conventional predication” (Farocki 1998, p.42). Here, Camille’s contempt for Paul, is “never explicitly explained or understood” (MacCabe 2003, p.153). While another filmmaker might succinctly achieve this in one sentence, Godard draws the tension out over thirty long minutes, purposefully ignoring traditional narrative film structure. Here, the cinemascope camera takes full advantage of the rabbit-warren-style apartment. As if capturing “a surreal stream of consciousness (Gazetas 2000, p.3), Godard allows both squabbling characters to move in and out of frame, as the long take compositions permit the camera and audience to casually observe them.
“It is as if Godard wanted to film all the variations on the theme: a man and woman fight” (Farocki 1998, p43). Godard exhaustively explores the complexities of ‘love’ and relationships, which are often overdramatised, and at the same time, oversimplified in film. Through Paul and Camille’s troublesome relationship, Godard has essentially destroyed the Hollywood archetype of ‘the couple’, and more realistically created what might be described as “anti-heroes” (Gazetes 2000, p.4). They don’t kiss and make up, they don’t resolve their issues; they are childish, illusive, selfish, and represent to many people, a more realistic portrayal of ‘the couple’. By ignoring the “classic grammar of cinema” (MacCabe 2003, p.154), Godard provokes an active response from the viewer, encouraging them to philosophically reflect on the psychological make up of relationships, and the roles that men and women portray, on and off-screen.
In a further attempt to break the rigid conventions of cinema, and prompt an active reflection from the audience, Godard draws attention to the films construction by adopting unconventional camera and editing techniques. As Paul sits Camille down at the coffee table to ‘interrogate’ her, framing the subjects in medium-close ups, the single camera tracks horizontally between the characters, and is seemingly “unmotivated by what transpires in the conversation” (Farocki 1998, p.48). Here, the camera takes on a life of its own, like a third character privy to their conversation, and unrestricted by the ‘laws’ that typically govern cinema. With this direct dialogue with the viewer, Godard assumes that the audience has basic film knowledge of the shot/reverse shot – generally used in film to establish space, and capture characters reactions. As the tracking camera “meditatively” (Lev 1993, p.86) moves between ‘the couple’ – exposing the lamp that inhabits the dead space, Paul rhythmically flicks the light on and off at the precise moment the lamp enters the frame. This rhythm, created between character and camera, again highlights the mediated process of film, and the artificial role that actors fulfill by ‘playing up to the camera’.
Similarly, in an effort to bridge the gap between director and audience, and expose the emotive devices, meticulously deployed by cinema, Godard incorporates an unconventional use of non-diegetic sound. As Camille lashes out, asserting that Paul fills her with ‘contempt’, excessively loud, classical music chimes in to dramatically reinforce the emotionally charged dialogue. This very literal use of sound, to punctuate the poignant moment, is consistantly used throughout the film, and is each time removed as quickly as it begins. Here, Godard’s ‘misuse’ of sound, is a reflexive mocking of cinemas established ‘tools of the trade’, where music is typically used to dictate emotions to a passive audience.
Ultimately, Contempt is an expression of Godard’s refusal to assimilate to the artistically repressive confines of conventional cinema. While aesthetically beautiful, the film functions more as a vehicle through which Godard mounts an artistic critique on the standardization of cinema, and its prioritization of commerce, over art and culture. By unconventionally employing the use of various technical, thematic and stylistic devices, Godard draws the viewer’s attention to the highly formulaic and manipulative structure of conventional cinema. By exhibiting an extreme level of self-reflexivity, Godard works to further encourage the audience to question their passive relationship to film, and actively reflect on the philosophical questions inherent in his work. Through the casting of stereotypes and star personas, Godard highlights the prevailing ideologies inherent in cinema, and the packaging and exploitation of artists. Acutely aware that he himself produces and disseminates his work within these ideological confines, Godard explicitly mocks and draws parallels with himself, the characters and the films thematic values. Through inter-textual references and camera techniques, Godard pays homage to the auteur’s of the ‘old cinema’, of whom he respects for their authenticity and innovation. However, frustrated with the homogenization of this cinema, Godard works to destroy the traditional confines of conventional film, and pave the way for a new, innovative and culturally diverse cinema.
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