Friday, March 21, 2008

Movies: Le Mépris (Contempt)

I was warned that this movie was awful, but I went to see it anyway; that might be why I liked it so much. It's not that I'm a complete contrarian, but I have noticed an inverse correlation between expectations and pleasure (but not for brilliant films and terrible ones, merely for the fence-straddlers). Contempt scores a ten for aesthetics, featuring not just Bardot, whom I actually don't like so much (there's something about her teeth that makes her look sort of dumb), but the insuperable Mediterranean coast of Italy, as well as director Godard's primary color obsession, such that every shot features items in at least two if not all three: mustard yellow, fire engine red, and royal blue. Bathrobes, books, couches, towels, dresses are tossed against a generally neutral background (the creme color of raw canvas, or the stark white of gesso) in pre-meditated carelessness, disclosing that we are in a stylized, aestheticized world: the world of the cinema (which, the opening quotation from Bazin instructs us, is where we go to find "a world that corresponds to our desires.")

Bardot might be the simplest thing that corresponds to our desires (or the thing that corresponds to our simplest desires?), and so Godard serves her up nude, in bed, in the opening scene, bathed in cool blue and warm red lights. She speaks to her lover and asks him, starting with her feet, whether he likes each part of her body, and he tells her yes, he quite likes her feet, her knees, her breasts, her face. The camera roves over her bare buttocks and we rather like them, too. Coming on the heels of the opening credits, in which we see part of the film being filmed, while a voice speaks the credits aloud (in whimsical French a younger movie-goer might associate with Jean-Pierre Jeunet), until the cameraman turns and points his lens right at us, we immediately know we are watching an "art film," and our expectations are set for such. But then, Godard turns a bit on us, and turns his film into a kind of domestic pot-boiler; it turns out that Paul (Michel Piccoli) is more than Camille's (Bardot) lover; he's her husband, and he's a writer, and a rift is about to come up between them.

American movie producer Prokosch (a magnificent caricature by Jack Palance) has hired veteran Fritz Lang to shoot Odysseus, but the artiste keeps filming unmarketable shots; he wants Paul to rewrite the screenplay. Paul seems amenable to the project (Prokosch writes him a big check, which he examines and then puts into his breast pocket in assignation, at which point we are to read him as something of a sell-out, though he maintains a kind of psychic connection with Lang throughout the exchange, so that we are hesitant to accuse him of completely subsuming art for money), and even sends Camille off with the lecherous Prokosch as a kind of collateral, packing her into Prokosch's two-seater red convertible, against her will. This starts the boiling (and also the first tiring lull in the film, which I would argue is a bit too long for its plot). Back at home, Camille and Paul quarrel; she's clearly angry with him, but refuses to explain why. She toys with him, wearing a black wig over her blond locks, getting in and out of the bathtub, walking around their Mondrian apartment wearing a bath sheet, insisting that she will sleep on the couch that night, refusing to Capri with the film crew. He asks whether anything happened between her and Prokosch; she declines to answer.

Ultimately, they do both go to Capri, and during filming at the producer's awesome villa, which clings to a cliff over the sea, the proverbial pot begins to boil over. Camille at last kisses Prokosch (even though she clearly still detests him) when she knows Paul will see. Paul gets a gun and tries to decide what he ought to do with it. Camille goes for a swim in the ocean, naked, baiting him. All the while, Paul and Fritz Lang are engaged in a conversation about the Odyssey, considering a theory that Odysseus originally left home for the Trojan war because he was unhappy with Penelope, and stayed away for so long for that very reason. (It is clear, when Paul gets the gun, that he is mirroring his actions in some way on those of Odysseus, who kills Penelope's suitors upon his return.) But Paul doesn't use his gun; instead, he says goodbye to Fritz Lang and leaves Capri, having read a note from Camille, who has already left with Prokosch in his little red convertible, which crashes into a truck and kills them both (in a very aesthetically pleasing way, I should add).

I generally have trouble identifying with women's feminine behavior in films, but here, I found Camille's wrath, motivated by, dare I say it, contempt of Paul's sell-out behavior (selling out art is one thing, selling out your wife quite another) perfectly understandable and perfectly defensible. In leaving with the revolting Prokosch (who, I failed to mention, speaks only English, whereas Camille speaks only French), she almost literally cuts her nose to spite her face. It's the kind of retribution that simultaneously seeks to detach and enrage, demonstrating to the offender the infinite conclusion of his actions. Though Bardot plays Camille as a kind of passive, frustrated chess piece (even if she's the Queen, she can't travel off the board, as she seems to want to do, moving from room to room of their small apartment like a caged animal), it works; at first I'm as annoyed at her as her husband is, but soon he begins to annoy me as much as he annoys her, and though I hate Prokosch (as much as they both do), I don't blame Camille for using him for the dual purpose of escape and retribution.

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