Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

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Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby collectedsoul » Mon Aug 07, 2006 9:40 pm

I need help. I want to do my thesis on godard's films and the following are some of my thoughts on 'Contempt'. Please read them and critique my ideas or simply comment on them, whatever. Would appreciate any help...


- Shayan Banerjee
August 6, 2006

The fight is between art and commerce. The battleground is cinema.

I begin with an acknowledgement of the most beautiful theme music that a film could hope to have. Godard uses the piece abundantly throughout the film, often with great and varying effect until this gloriously haunting piece by Georges Delerue becomes synonymous with the film.

Indeed the film begins with this music as we see a camera tracking towards us, the credits are read out, not shown in writing. All this to make the audience aware that this is a film they are watching. Why? Because this is going to be an essay on film-making the audience must therefore be made conscious of this fact.

The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires. Contempt is a story of this world. With this, the camera turns to us, and what follows is an essay on our filmic gaze. This explains a lot of the film the beautiful panoramic shots, the glorifying gaze on Brigitte Bardots naked body, the deliberate movements of the actors

Jeremiah Prokosch, the American producer of the film-within-the-film, emerges from inside a once-glorious but now abandoned film studio (as if Godard were incriminating the American movie industry for the demise of European in this instance Italian cinema) and the camera moves away to position the eye as audience in a theatrical performance of the archetypal pompous American producer.

A note on the casting of Lang Fritz Lang was one of the great exponents of thoughtful cinema in the early days when the medium was looking for direction, however his lack of popular acceptance and historical events leading to the decline of German cinema meant that he had to move to America just so he could make some money directing mass-targeted Hollywood films. This contemporary reality becomes the reality of the film-within-the-film a comment on the decline of artistic cinema and the helplessness of the artist which forces him to compromise his artistic vision.

A note on the character of Paul Paul himself is another artist mirroring Langs dilemma. Once a crime novelist, now he is forced to write movie scripts in order to make more money. (Is Godard saying that even the crime novel is a more honorable art-form than cinema?) He needs the $10,000 that Prokosch offers to pay for his flat.

Because the Odyssey needs a German director everybody knows a German () discovered Troy, this is the logic the American producer provides for his selection of the German director Fritz Lang. Another ironic and this time witty comment from Godard on the skewed logic that many American production houses employ their obsession with organization and routine of bare functional knowledge sans the artistic vision jars the European film-makers sensibility; this idea is expressed on various occasions throughout the course of the film.

Moremore says Prokosch by way of instruction on what the screenwriter should write for his movie on the Odyssey suggesting the aesthetic of BIG that the Americans want from their movies. The trite aphorisms from Prokosch, read out from a tiny little red book are ironic for they seem contrary to Prokoschs own boisterous and cocksure character.

Finally you get the feel of Greek culture Lang says this referring and following on from his previous comment about the fight of the individual against his circumstance being the theme of the Odyssey. A mocking and truly funny comment at the expense of the American Prokosch as he expresses his frustration over the contents of the film that Lang has made.

Lang asks how do you say strange in Italian? rather earnestly signifying perhaps that even as an old man he still has the desire to learn.

Scene: Paul arrives at Prokoschs house late, followed by Francesca on a bicycle. Pauls wife stops in her tracks as she sees her pass by, she turns slowly the scene conveys the suspicion that Pauls wife has that something might be going on between her husband and the translator. But then something strange happens we see shots of Bardot putting on make-up, trying on a hat, and consequently making the audience aware that she is playing a role in a movie.
Significance: Godard, in this sequence, is making a very strong statement about film philosophy. He is emphasizing a rejection of the vicarious eye with which we receive motion pictures. The viewer is refused any feelings of emotional response to the life of the character on screen.
The conclusion one draws from this little audiovisual essay is this:
This is not the written form where the narrative is played out in the readers imagination, nor is it a painting whose representative form is determined in the viewers mind. This is motion pictures and there are real people. They are pretending to be someone they are not. Should we, as viewers of the spectacle, be stirred to emotion by this fakeness? This is a question that Godard asks repeatedly. It is one of immense significance to the legitimacy of cinema as an art-form. And it is a question that Godard poses through this simple yet ostensibly baffling sequence. The genius of the man!

And running hand-in-hand with all of Godards little essays and commentaries is the artifice of a story of marital discord, itself deserving critical attention.

When the scene shifts to the couples flat, the representation of this reality, that of the man and woman as couple, is a stark departure from the idealized, glossed over portrayal of man-woman scenes in popular cinema, especially Hollywood. The two characters carry out mundane activities, just like couples do in real life, and this presents a true-to-life picture that is also tinged with a certain irony the flat looks more like a set, the setting in which the couple interacts seems brazenly artificial, but the subtle turns of conversation have a very real effect in suggesting the growing distance between this man and woman.

The nature of love is another question raised in this film. Why does she stop loving him? Where does love come from? How does it disappear? Is there an event, a turning point when love just goes away? Godard seems to think the explanation is not that simple. Somehow, in the course of the day Camille has arrived at the knowledge that she doesnt love Paul anymore what the reasons are, the viewer is left to decide. This is again a deviation from the norm of establishing certainties as is done in Hollywood cinema which defines popular notions of the aesthetics of cinema.

Contempt is also a tragedy, not quite in the grand scale of a Greek tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless. Paul realizes much too late, when his love has already decided to leave, that he has turned his back on his ideal that of writing plays and substituted it for the false glamour of cinema. In a passionate speech he bemoans the compromises the artist has to make to survive in the world. Why does money matter so much in what we do, in what we are, what we become? the words are powerful and yet, coming from Paul sound more like a petulant complaint. But the point is being made, this is not a world perfectly suited for artists and especially with works of cinema whose commercial viability is crucial in determining what the artist can and cannot do. For example, in this film itself, Godard was forced to shoot some nude scenes of Bardot to appease his producers, this compromise is a reality all film-makers have to deal with. As also Lang, who concludes the scene with the poignant words, One must suffer. Pauls speech thus becomes a platform for this complaint of Godards.

The final act ends with the tragedy of Camilles death, in a supremely stylized shot of an automobile accident a shot that underlines the stylish vision of the cinematographer Coutard.

Final shot: The camera moves slowly to focus its gaze on the sea, so that our gaze can finally rest upon its tranquil surface. Silencio

Re: Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby A » Wed Aug 09, 2006 4:24 pm

Contmept is one of my favorite films, but having seen it only once, some time ago, I am not as "up to date" with it as you seem to be.
As I recall, the film is very complex and doesn't offer answers, instead posing questions directly for the viewer to decide.
For me the film felt like an autobiographic exercise of Godard (much more than any other of his films i've seen), with the most significant thing in the film being the relationship of Paul and Bardot's character (sorry, I forgot her name). The focus being on Bardot, or on film, the two (woman and cinema) are - or aren't - on the same pedestal, for Paul.

If i would do a paper I would focus more on the situation Godard found himself while making the film (his only "big-budget" international production), and his relationship to Anna Karina during this period in his life.

What i also found very important for the film is the use of several different languages throughout it.

On Lang, i would say he represents an "uncorruptable" person, the ideal director who can stay true to his vision whatever the circumstances may be. I think that's how most of the Nouvelle vague admirers of his works saw him. (see the book on him bardot is reading in the film). I don't think your description (later he made hollywood films) fits here, as what Godard is showing is a man who keeps his integrity (on one side Paul has Prokosch - the american, ignorant, rich and arrogant - on the other Lang - the european, with a vision, rich on tradition, and devoted to his art.)

For me this is one of the most honest films I have seen about relationships and representations, the way we perceive others and ourselves. Kind of what we put into the film (the image, the characters) will come back to us as a response.

I think what you wrote above is a good starting point. Just keep to the things that interest you in the film, and speak to you.

The final shot:
you wrote: "Final shot: The camera moves slowly to focus its gaze on the sea, so that our gaze can finally rest upon its tranquil surface. Silencio
How about seeing the final shot as the shot Lang is composing in the film. Kind of an image in an image... Maybe only film (and ideal) can be the final "word" in a film.

Whatever the case, it's obvious that I would need to see the film again to be able to offer you some significant help.

Another point that came up just now. I think Bardot's position is less complicated than Paul's. At the beginning she loves him, later when she starts thinking more about his love for her, she loses the feeling and replaces (?) it with the title's Contempt. Has Paul actually ever "loved" Bardot's character? Or is she (like karina for Godard) a woman to project his obsessions into. An object more than an individual subject? Which gaze can make an object of a person, and how is the "cinematic" gaze of the camera related to this. How do you give yourself, and how do you take away from another - what is reality, honesty on film, and what manipulation and possession?

Re: Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby trevor826 » Wed Aug 09, 2006 4:52 pm

Even though I have it on dvd I haven't seen Contempt for quite a while. The relationship already mentioned by A is what has stuck in my mind, the contempt shown especially from Camille (Bardot's character) was so overpowering and for me so reminiscent of past follies that it overshadowed the rest of the film.

Thanks for your reading of it collectedsoul, one thing is for definite, I will watch it again soon even though I found moments of it quite painful in its honesty.

Cheers Trev.

Re: Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby jcdavies » Wed Aug 09, 2006 9:45 pm

I think you could mention Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, as an influence- not just the setting but the sea, statues, historical/classical heritage, and the great respect Godard and fellow Cahiers du Cinma critics turned director (e.g Rohmer) had for the film, which they championed as a new way of expressing emotion through environment/ surroundings. It was also a sort of fore-runner for another Italian coastal film, L'Avventura. Like L'Avventura, Godard makes telling use of architecture (the house on the cliffs).

Also a certain hedonistic urge in Godard alongside his cool intellect; the primary colours, sensuality v the film's cynicism + contempt for crass commercialism- he neatly turns the required Bardot nudity to his advantage, in more ways than one (and didn't he say film was a great way of getting beautiful women to take off their clothes? or similar). It strikes me as a more controlled, less joyfully free, film than say Pierrot le Fou.

Re: Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby collectedsoul » Wed Aug 09, 2006 11:30 pm

Firstly, thanks a lot to all of you for your comments and suggestions.

A: I have heard that Godard's relationship with Anna Karina was an influence on the relationship presented between the couple in the movie. Coutard said something like "Contempt was Godard's love-letter to Anna'. But I havent been able to read much about his relationship with Anna. Hopefully I will soon in a book on Godard that I'm getting.
You also pointed out the various languages used...I read somewhere Godard used it as a ploy so that they couldn't dub the movie. I'm sure there are more possiblities there...will explore.
I like what you said about 'what you put into the film comes back as response'. This is true I think because Godard leaves so much to the viewer - also could be tied up to our 'filmic gaze'...
And I love your idea of the film as the final word.
And finally, those are some very interesting questions you asked at the end of your post...will definitely ponder over them.
Please do get back with more if and when you watch it again.

trevor826: Do please tell me your thoughts once you watch it again.

jcdavies: Thanks for the tip about the Rossellini movie...but its very difficult to find a copy of the movie you mentioned. I only have Open City of his. I have seen L'Avventura, liked it, but like La Notte more...
I didn't see much sensuality in the way Bardot's nude form was was more a gaze of aesthetic appraisal and approval I think. The comment is made somewhere in the film that 'show a girl a camera and she takes off her clothes' or something like it...but that was not how Camille (Bardot's character) was presented. The way Bardot is presented by Godard in that gaze of aesthetic appraisal is I think Godard's way of foiling the attempt by the producers to make his film just another one of those that objectify the female body to make a few more bucks at the box office.

If any of you use msn and dont mind conversations with an amateur mind, my id is
Thanks again for your thoughts.


Re: Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby jcdavies » Thu Aug 10, 2006 4:45 am

I was thinking more of Godard's comment elsewhere on being a film director as one job where you can legitimately get women to take off their clothes/ ask this without getting slapped. No doubt an element of tongue in cheek (if you'll pardon the expression). Anyway, it's true he deliberately avoids pressing the usual Hollywood box office sexiness buttons in that Bardot sequence but there's still an overall sensuality, with the colours (e.g the rich red of the scene) and setting; a sense of warmth alongside the intellectual coolness, which especially appeals to me in Pierrot le Fou (when asked about the unrealistic look of the blood in that film, he replied it's not blood, it's red).

Do try and see Voyage to Italy- a very different kettle of fish to the neo-realist classics of the 40's; Contempt clearly pays homage to it, again as the antithesis of crass commercial cinema.

Re: Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby wpqx » Thu Aug 10, 2006 7:52 am

Agreed, like John, I'm also under the impression that Voyage in Italy is a better film, and one that Godard owns some debt of gratitude. For me its very much a vital transition in Italian cinema (along with Visconti's Senso and La Notti Bianci) from the already rigid Neo-realism to a much more personal and existential intellectual cinema which I've always found the highlight of Italian film.

Godard's film however is great, and I'm glad for the one good chance you get to see Fritz Lang act.

Re: Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby A » Sat Aug 12, 2006 2:07 pm

Well, like you, I had many thoughts after watching Contempt the last time, but they have all slowly vanished or been absorbed. The above is probably the most you could get out of me, beside maybe a few more questions. I'd like to see it again, but the film is a bit "heavy", and I don't think i'm up to it at the moment.
Voyage in Italy is a good point, I think you should check it out. But it's different, in that less is spoken about the relationship, and it's less complicated than in Contempt. The couple is kind of standard middle-aged upper middle class. I didn't like the film too much, but there are some beautiful and stunning scenes involving some greek mythology.

BTW, I think Alphaville was intended as Godard's love-letter to Karina (also photographed by Coutard), can't imagine Contempt in that function...

Sadly I don't have MSN, but if you stick around this Forum, I'll surely recall your adress (or this thread), when I'll get it.

Re: Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby collectedsoul » Sat Aug 12, 2006 6:08 pm

hmm...I have to see Voyage in Italy then

A: The love-letter was definitely contempt...i heard it on the commentary. I think Coutard was talking about the character Paul's view of his relationship with Camille...for Paul it was almost like she was a prize...he was worried about getting her things to keep her happy (the flat for example)...and Camille makes a lot of comments about indicating that Paul thinks she is intellectually inferior. I remember the scene when she's sitting on the can and Paul asks what she's doing and she says 'i'm thinking, dont u think i am capable of it?' and also when she's quoting from the book on Lang he doesnt respect her opinion like he does Lang's or even the translator's. He never really loved her as a person and I think this is how Godard thought of Anna too and through this film was trying to say that he realised he was guilty of doing this.
I'm surprised you don't have msn...good to know such people still exist.

wpqx: I'm trying to get Visconti's White Nights, havent seen any of his films yet...a question...who was the pioneer of neo-realism in Italy?

jcdavies: As far as Bardot's scenes go, I never felt the sensuality myself...I have seen her in much more sensual contexts...

Re: Some thoughts on Godard's Contempt

Postby wpqx » Sat Aug 12, 2006 9:44 pm

I generally equate Visconti as the real forerunner of neo-realism, considering his Ossessione predates the major "breakthroughs" of Rossellini and De Seca. However it was rather like the French New Wave in that it was more a general trend and an outgrowth of certain new voices than a direct movement. Its inception was largely influenced by the war and the complete lack of resources. I believe Rossellini had once said that he had no concept of neo-realism he just wanted to make movies and that was the only way he could at the time.

White Nights is one of Visconti's most beautiful films, and I enjoyed it more than Bresson's film from the same book Four Nights of a Dreamer, which is even harder to find in this country. Visconti however was far from a peasant, so for me I feel his best work generally deals with his own social class (the landed aristocracy). He does well with the decadence of this class in Sandra, which remains my favorite film of his. Although thanks to the Criterion collection for finally releasing the most complete version of The Leopard available. Warner Bros, who was his distributor of his later films, has put out Death in Venice and the Damned, and I only hope they get on the ball with the rest of them, particularly Conversation Piece and Ludwig. However Visconti's neo-realist films are certainly worth watching, particularly La Terra Trema and Rocco and His Brothers (although mine is dubbed so I think that detracts a little).

Rossellini's initial WWII trilogy (Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero) are all essentials as far as film literacy goes, but his films did occasionally utilize professional actors contrary to many myths and legends about the movement (as did Visconti's later work).

De Seca embraced the movement well, and most of that I think is attributable to his scenarist Cesare Zivittani(?), who collaborated with him throughout his early career. I've not yet watched The Children are Watching Us (although it is in one of my piles), which that film also predates Open City. His films have been attacked in modern film circles as being too sentimental and although his Miracle in Milan is almost overflowing with sentimentality, I find it a rather charming fable.

Like arguing over whether Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, or Rivette was the initiator of the new wave, neorealism is also a movement without any defined figure head, but with several big high profile names, who all eventually grew out of it and made somewhat unique films in and out of the system.

I rattled on too much, but luckily most of the key films from Visconti and De Seca are available on DVD, Rossellini has gotten much less love, but it is the centenial anniversary of his birth, so I'm hoping that will motivate more.

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