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Le Mepris (1963)
(aka Contempt)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A satire with teeth, Le Mepris wraps itself in emotional devastation and symbolism, an in-joke which echoes cinematic history. Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) rests in bed with his beautiful young wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), luxuriating in the after-glow. Though Paul is nominally a writer-playwright, while Camille is an ex-typist, his entire attention is fully occupied with appreciating her firm, curvaceous and alluring body. As the camera glides silkily across Camille's skin, lingering for long moments, it's clear that the pair are almost part of each other, so deep is their love.

In the morning, Paul is escorted to a meeting with American film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). Translated fitfully through Jeremy's assistant Francesca Vanini (Georgia Moll), it becomes clear that he is here in Rome to make a movie based upon Homer's Odyssey. The director is the famed Fritz Lang (Fritz Lang), though Prokosch violently disagrees with his artistic vision, which is why he wants Paul to rewrite the screenplay to his specifications. This isn't really Paul's favourite line of work but it seems like easy money, so he's keen to impress Prokosch by accepting his offer.

However, the vulgar film-maker has taken an instant liking towards Camille and manages to drive her back to his villa alone, while Paul and Francesca run along behind. Despite the language barrier, Prokosch's intentions towards Camille are clear and require no interpretation. She is having none of it though, relieved when Paul finally arrives then disgusted by his non-reaction. She isn't used to being treated as a chattel, a predicament which precipitates a crisis in their relationship. Camille has been forced to despise him, unable to bear even a caress. With Paul viewed in the same light as Prokosch by Camille, an air of tension rises between them. Unable to reveal her true feelings, Paul smothers each chance of reconciliation by blundering onwards in his quest for a reason. This is a pivotal moment in their marriage.

The central motif of Le Mepris, which brings and binds all together, is the production of the Odyssey. A film within a film (highlighting the intrinsic artificiality of cinema as a whole), the Odyssey is viewed in three mutually incompatible ways by Prokosch, Paul and Lang. While the director is working from a position of understanding, intent upon revealing the glory of classical Greece, Prokosch is adamant that it can (and must) be simplified for the movie-going public (categorising the masses as low-brow even as he childishly sniggers through nude but non-erotic rushes). He wants a modern psychological drama and working from the perspective that money can achieve anything (even re-write the Odyssey), Paul is brought in as his tool. What they all fail to notice is that Paul has slipped into the role of Odysseus, while Camille is Penelope and Prokosch is Poseidon. This haunting similarity between reality and fiction is the impetus that drives Paul's interpretation, to no avail in his personal life.

Judging by the way Jean-Luc Godard strokes Bardot with light, he is clearly infatuated with her great physical beauty and presence. Naked, the tones and textures of her flesh are examined close-up, the subtle graduations in shade slowly shifting. When clothed, she is swathed in creations of bright, primary colours and dresses which hug her form. While Bardot is delectable on the small-scale (though never exploited), CinemaScope provides stunning vistas on the large-scale. Arching horizons, stretched-out figures and twitching arrows take the width of the screen, fragments of the superbly designed compositions. Le Mepris never looks anything less than amazing.

A major section of the film is taken up by a ranging, vitriolic argument between Paul and Camille. Though her sudden contempt for Paul is never fully explained, this disagreement serves to open old wounds and reveal their true natures. Like Prokosch, Paul is misogynistic and blind. However, he is also weak and eager to please, while Prokosch is strong and consistent, even as he is tasteless, manipulative and thoroughly worthless. Godard really rips into Prokosch, showing him as a creature entirely dependent upon translation, thinking that philosophical sound-bites make him cultured. This is where Godard indicates his distaste for big-money Hollywood moviemakers and their ethos. Given a big budget, best-selling novel and famous cast, Godard turned upon his backers and attacked arrogant American moguls clashing with the European film industry.

Le Mepris digs into its characters and reveals just what annoys Godard about Hollywood. While the enterprise is rather dry, fending off connection with the its players, the sense of sadness and tragedy seeps through.

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