So, we arrive at Contempt, the oft-revived, oft-praised pinnacle of the first portion of Godard’s 60s, some might argue of his entire career. Even when placed amidst his more aesthetically unified earlier works, Contempt still stands out for presenting itself as a clean (icily so) conceptual and aesthetic whole. It lands even further from the open confrontation that would mark his cosmic films from the latter half of the decade. Contempt’s sublimation of the formal disjunctures that so confidently powered and derailed his other films into its seductive scope frames only renders it more successful, more radical—here, for once, Godard took a/the movie apart from the inside out, as he went along. It’s somewhat odd to show Contempt near the end of the series—a strictly chronological trek through the decade finds his films growing more scattered, more provoking, more discursive, more like a new kind of movie that no one had seen or imagined before. For those who find La Chinoise an unbearable slog, Weekend an affront to viewing, or Le Gai Savoir art cinema’s worst nightmare, who only sees the Godard of this decade as a precocious provocateur in a dark suit with glasses should spend time with Contempt. It’s merely one of the most perfect, tragically romantic movies ever made.
The plot should, by now, be familiar to those with even a passing familiarly with Jean-Luc Godard: Michel Piccoli’s Paul, a struggling writer weighing whether or not to take a stab at salvaging a filmic adaptation of The Odyssey (Godard going right to the source in his typically tangled allusive web here), directed by Fritz Lang, and produced by comically chinned proto-super-producer Jeremy played by Jack Palance. Brigitte Bardot’s Camille, Piccoli’s luscious wife, and the film takes a brief, simple encounter in which Paul invites Camille to share a ride down the cliffs of Capri with Jeremy as the point of departure for his tracing of the gradual disillusionment and disentanglement of their relationship.
Contempt rests on a series of misunderstandings—mostly of man misunderstanding woman and reaping his just rewards. Paul’s inability to comprehend Camille’s growing malaise stokes the titular emotion, pushing him further towards a place of less comprehension, leading to her further suspicion of his love and around again. At least so it seems—by the end of the film Paul acknowledges his awareness that Camille’s frustration stems from that moment in which she felt transformed by the dynamic between two negotiating men into an object of exchange, but by that point the admission is too late, and even worse for its lateness. It’s the most perfect evocation of internal marital decay on film: two people, together in one moment, in the next unbound from each other completely, unexpectedly.
Scorsese’s on record as labeling Contempt as one of the best movies about moviemaking going, and it is that. But though the film’s very first shot turns the/a camera literally on the audience, what’s really at stake here is not movies, but romantic love. Or, more specifically: the idea of romantic love as it has been mediated by the complicity between audiences and the motion picture industry. Ever despairing, ever hopeful, Godard observes the breakdown of his couple clinically, with scope frames growing emptily claustrophobic and Georges Delerue’s overpowering score (truly the saddest music in the world) keying up the emotions. He wonders about mediation: isn’t that the havoc movie romance has wrought on the public at large? That filmic narrative’s vision of romance and romantic love is so far removed from the ongoing tussle that is a real-world relationship that it indoctrinates all the world’s potential lovers into an illusory system? Everyone wants to love like they do in the movies, but few can or will. Even fewer acknowledge the richness that would be lost if they did.
If much of Godard’s sixties found the director playing with genre in his own highly idiosyncratic way (reductively: Alphaville-sci-fi; A Woman Is a Woman-musical; Les Carabiniers-war film; Breathless-gangster flick; etc.), then, Contempt is his grand melodramatic romance. Fassbinder stole the overall concept and mucked it up with his own trash sensibility for the far more hilarious and equally successful in its own right Beware of a Holy Whore. But Holy Whore’s “romance(s)” such as it was, was truly secondary to the nitty gritty: waking lists, completion funds, phone calls to Stuttgart from busted Spanish pay phones. Godard the lover and covert optimist emerges bruised, battered, yet oddly whole from the finale of Contempt. Even though his dire ending caps a film which suggests the difficulties and potential consequences of entering into union with another, he wouldn’t have made it in this largely accessible, highly inviting fashion if he wasn’t making among his most important cautionary statements: be careful all, for it’s easy to lose it at the movies.