Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Contempt (1963)

* Spoken opening credits mark this right off as a big-budget film without the feel of a big-budget film; the Andre Bazin quote (wrongly attributed, according to Rosenbaum) clinches it. Jean-Luc Godard got the money and the producer interference that comes with major-market filmmaking, but he still held fast to his sense of pranksterism and his talent for subversion. Thus, we have a film that trips itself up whenever it can.

* Godard famously has Fritz Lang say that CinemaScope is not useful for people, only for "snakes and funerals." He then throws that out the window by giving us one stunning 'Scope composition after another. The central setpiece, with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli arguing in their apartment, is particularly stunning -- a rapturous study of spatial relations, with the movements of the actors and the constant panning of the camera across rooms and through walls literalizing the affection/rejection verbal dance that is happening in front of us.

* If Godard's subversive nature works on a visual level, though, it doesn't work at all on a storytelling level. We're deliberately not given an identification figure, just a bunch of types who range from morally compromised (Piccoli) to out-and-out rotten (Jack Palance as a dumb, venal producer). Furthermore, there's nothing that can be done with Bardot -- she's not an actress, she's a clothes hanger with eyes. The only character even remotely sympathetic/interesting is Lang, and he's here solely for his status as Fritz Lang. So a man's marriage falls apart, his career fizzles, his ideals get sold out and there's no reason to feel any way about it beyond a shrug. You can lead a man to cinema, but you can't force him to give a crap.

* I admit part of my antipathy towards this is driven by my dislike of films centered around squabbling married couples. Even Scenes from a Marriage, which I like overall, lost my interest when the hostility between Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman went from unspoken to overt.

* Maybe in a way, this film was always destined to destroy itself. I mean, it's right there in the title: Contempt made this film, drove it, formed it into the interesting but unsatisfying work-of-many-colors that it is. It's said in the film, "We must rebel when trapped by circumstances," and that seems to be what Godard did here.

Grade: C+


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