The cool hats, imitating screen gods like Humphrey Bogart and Dean Martin, is integral to Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic films such as À bout de souffle, Bande à part and Le Mépris.
What separates Le Mépris from the others is how sex and filmmaking is merged into one, using the iconic Brigitte Bardot to subtly dominate the screen with her sensual presence.
Panning slowly, through tricolour filters, Godard caresses Bardot’s body in the opening. As Camille, Bardot asks her husband Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), whether he likes her features; her thighs; her breasts; her buttocks. The camera follows her questions and it’s clear she knows we’re watching. Godard’s connection between film and the audience is immediate. Her husband is a playwright and, approached by American producer Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance), he is asked to work with Fritz Lang. While the conflict of art and commerce is verbalized in the conversations between Prokosch and Lang, Paul realizes his marriage to Camille is over, and he is desperate to understand why she holds such contempt (the English title) for him.
In Le Mépris, Lang directs an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, capturing slow-rotating statues of Gods; in this film, it is Bardot who is a Goddess. While men in the film are all drawn to her, we too are pulled in her direction as her wide-eyed beauty steals our attention. When Godard first completed the film, his own producer Joseph E. Levine, asked for more nude Bardot scenes. Godard responded with the awkwardly placed opening scene (as Bardot discusses her objectified body to her husband), jutting into the natural beginning as Francesca Vanini (Giorgia Moll) runs to meet Javal at the Cinecitta studios. Le Mépris is Godard trying to experiment with a cast and story that’ll pull in a wide audience, realising in production that his art is compromised by the commercial prospect of this endeavor.
Starting the new year with a purpose, the decision to duck out of the grey skies and drab weather and into the cinema for Le Mépris is a glorious prospect. Split into three acts, Le Mépris is bathed in the sun, with a final act that is equally refreshing and dreamlike in its beauty. Even the long argument, located in a small apartment as Godard pans and glides through the home, takes place on a hot day whereby a bath is what both Paul and Camille need to cool off. The finale, using the location of Capri, takes place in a red-stoned residence, with a wide staircase on the side of the house to the roof. Each time a character is tracked walking to the top, it sets the stage and makes another nod towards the Greek stories they discuss so much.
Le Mépris is Godard talking marriage and sex. It’s Godard talking cinema, filmmaking and the conflict of creating art. It’s about language, as characters speak Italian, French, German and English. Their lack of communication highlighting the fractures in relationships, whereby communication is key. Film is, of course, communicating our dreams and thoughts in visual form. Though not the ideal start for understanding the French New Wave (Maybe Les Quatre Cents Coups or À bout de soufflé), this is accessible, innovative storytelling. Akin to Bonjour Tristesse, it transports you away to another world, whereby a beautiful landscape sets the scene for an intense deconstruction of love. Surely the ideal way to begin 2016.