Friday, October 2, 2009

Is Godard's "Contempt" Relevant Today? Is Godard?

By Lars Trodson

In the 30-minute discussion that takes place at the heart of Jean-Luc Godard's "Contempt", the characters played by Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot talk about the following:

The future, the past, love, the meaning of love, sex, art, sex in art, family, lying, money, commerce, happiness, fame, contentment, dinner, appearances, illusion, reality, jealousy, truth, infidelity, movies, career, marriage, divorce, sanity, insanity -- and perception.

At one moment, Piccoli -- who plays a screenwriter -- slaps Bardot (she plays a typist) - so there is violence, too.

In other words, just about every subject the movies have ever tackled is presented in one circular, fascinating and maddening discussion by two unhappy people.

It's fitting, because no doubt Godard thought of his film as a kind of coda. He was summing up. At the end of the film, Godard has the words "Take Care" and "Farewell" (adieu) written across the screen, and almost certainly these words were being spoken by Godard to the essence of film -- a message to cinema itself -- rather than to the characters in the movie that were about to die.

Godard's film is literally about the death of cinema, a curious approach considering the man is still making films almost 50 years later. Maybe "Contempt" -- the French title is "Le mepris" -- was all a lark. I suppose in my younger years I would have fallen in love with this conceit -- the romanticism and the purity of it. Godard would be right because he is a genius. That is the romance of the young. We must all die before we get old and corrupt.

But such concessions don't come so easily any more -- if only because enjoyment from the movies comes in so many forms, including the commercial and the ludicrous.

Godard's movie, released in 1963, is based on the premise that the movies had promised us something -- that they started pure and somehow lost their way. Who were these owners of early cinema that sold it to the bankers and the bean counters? There isn't anything in the historical record to support that. We can appreciate and even admire the earliest film shot by Edison, or the Lumieres or Georges Melies. The films are simple and certainly beautiful, but that doesn't mean their only reason for existing was as art. No -- these were businessmen, too. It is a self-reverential and a certain kind of mythologizing to say that commercialism wrecked the movies. This is a platform supported by movie reviewers who see 200 movies a year and never pay for a single one. They have time to consider such abstract arguments. The rest of us, we pay our ten bucks and want to be entertained.

I'll be more honest than the critics who say that "Contempt" is a masterpiece. That most of the reviews of the movie mention how long that middle scene lasts, just as I did, means that at some point they looked at their watch as the thing played out. I did.

Since the 1960s Godard has been arguing that cinema was coming to an end, and by the time "Weekend" rolled around in 1967, he was giving way to any sense of formalism or rules. More recently, he has been shooting digitally and his films receive a limited release, at least outside Europe. They seem to be very personal endeavors, which is fitting. I haven't seen them.

He may have been, and may be continuing to be, fighting against American capitalism, and if that's his battle, fine. But what, really, is the battle Godard is fighting in "Contempt"? The same fight Peckinpah fought? And Welles? The one against the philistines with the check? Perhaps -- but if you have a grand vision, and Godard certainly had one, no one has yet figured out how to film that for free. Particularly if you put movie stars in your movies, which Godard was wont to do. This is rebellion?

Maybe in the last 40 years Godard has put his own money into his pictures, and then it would be hard to argue the point. He can do whatever he wants. But with "Contempt" it seems like a peculiar argument. What does it mean to take a check from producer Joe Levine, and then make a movie contemptuous of the check from a guy like Joe Levine?

Everybody -- including the gods that the characters in "Contempt" rail against -- has a boss. This includes filmmakers. If you don't like it, go stick a camera on a tripod, film yourself musing in a chair, and post it on YouTube.

From what I understand, "Contempt" starts out with a scene of Bardot nude in a bed because Levine wanted the great BB in the nude. Godard, who could rise to a challenge when he felt like it, turned the scene into something both sensual and contemplative. Bardot asks Picolli questions about her body, and how her husband likes specific bodily parts. After she asks about her kneecaps and breasts, Piccoli says:

"I love you totally, tenderly, tragically." Piccoli, who plays a screenwriter Paul Javal, could very well be talking about the movies, and in this movie in particular.

The scene then jumps to a decrepit movie studio where the crass, manipulative movie producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) comes out of a door and says, "Only yesterday there were kings here! Real human beings!" And he is referring to the gladiator epics that were made at the Cinecitta studio in the late 1950s and early 60s, when Italian cinema was in decline, but Godard may also be referring to the ghosts of the filmmakers who have come before.

Later, as Prokosch watches in dismay the dailies from the film version of Homer's "Odyssey" that he is producing with Fritz Lang as director, he says, "I like gods. I like them very much." But he hates the film he is producing, and yet he writes another check, almost as though he is a slave to the art he is trying in vain to protest.

To help punch up the project, Prokosch tries to hire Javal, but Javal is ambivalent. Prokosch invites everyone back to his villa for a drink after the screening. Lang says "Include me out" -- resurrecting the famous line by Samuel Goldwyn. Their initial discussions at the villa, and the perceived liaison that Javal has with Prokosch's assistant (Giorgia Moll), leads to the discussion at the middle of the film between Bardot and Piccoli.

Bardot's appearance in the film seems to lay somewhere in the twilight between commerce and art. She is named Camille, after one of the most famous French characters in literature. The original Camille (which was written by Dumas fils) must choose tragically between love and obligation, even as she is dying.

Bardot -- who turned 75 on Sept. 28 -- had a reputation of living exactly as she pleased. Not only was she obviously beautiful, she was a free spirit, and came to physically embody the national symbol of France. The idea that Bardot was in any way a Camille-like character was silly, and maybe that was the joke. Maybe.

In the sequence in their apartment, as Javal and Camille muse about the various aspects of life, Bardot dons a black wig, an act reminiscent of Welles cutting off Rita Hayworth's long red hair for "The Lady From Shanghai." The conversation they have -- even though it is archetypal - can be fun and inventive.

"Why so thoughtful?" Javal asks Camille at one point.

"Because I'm thinking of something," she responds.

But Camille's dilemma is simply personal. While it may be important to her, the only aspect of her life we are exposed to is her marriage to Javal. The problems the marriage is undergoing are only alluded to, and so we're not terribly invested in them. There's nothing more important than that, and so the conflict, if one even wants to call it that, is mild.

That Godard made the decision to spend so much time with these two shallow people -- as opposed to Prokasch and Fritz Lang, who seem to have so much to say -- means that Godard ultimately made the decision to make an intellectual point with his film rather than make any attempt to move his audience emotionally. He later took this attitude to near perfection in "La Chinois", which is almost all treatise and no cinema -- outside of his devotion to bold color schemes.

If I want to be indoctrinated, maybe I'd be better off forgoing the cinema and reading Mao's Little Red Book.

Some poetry does sneak through the proceedings in "Contempt." In the closing scenes, played out against a magnificent Mediterranean backdrop, Prokosch says "When it comes to making movies, dreams aren't enough." I took a rather workman-like message from that beautiful line: you not only have to dream a movie, you actually have to make it, or else it just stays a dream.

At the end of the movie, Bardot is sunbathing on the roof, and she is no longer as naked as she was in the beginning in the movie. Her ass is covered by a book, which may be one of the most whimsical bits of censorship in movie history.

There is more discussion and some angst, and Prokosch and Camille end up together in a little Alpha Romeo. They fill up at the local Mobil gas station and then Jerry and Camille crash into the oil truck and die. Godard has a thing about big oil (check out the famous opening in "Weekend"), but, really, is that the best he can do?

Here, at the end of the movie, I wrote in my notes: "Godard kills the muse and the money." What? He even had me fooled for a while, but probably I was just tired.

"I hate you because you're incapable of moving me," Camille says to Javal. I'm certain that Godard was also addressing the movie community -- to the David Leans and the Carroll Reeds and John Fords and George Cukors -- the men who he thinks destroyed the pure promise of the movies.

The problem is that in Godard's determination to please himself, and to satisfy the critics who were on his side, he failed to move too many other people, really, after "Breathless." And, frankly, there is real poetry in Reed and Cukor and Ford and Lean. If you look up Godard on IMDb, the movie that he is first identified with is "A bout de souffle" ("Breathless") -- what does that say?

Perhaps I came to Godard too late, but I don't feel like making excuses. Maybe I should have watched him in my twenties., when I saw "La Jetee" and "Celine and Julie Go Boating." But, truth be told, those were tough going, even when I was young.

I guess the next time I'm feeling continental I'll rent a Truffaut. I can watch "Day for Night" endlessly, and it has the added bonus of not making me feel so stupid if I decide to drink a Coke.