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Contempt: Scenes From a Marriage, and a Movie

Shot in gorgeous Cinemascope with ravishing views of Capri and Brigitte Bardot’s divine derrière, Jean-Luc Godard’s sixth film may have looked to some bewildered fans when it opened in 1963 like the Angry One’s bid to make a bona fide Hollywood movie. And really, who knows? Godard’s war against what he sees as Hollywood’s assault on true cinema has always been shrill enough to make you wonder whether his animus is fueled by desire or envy. In fact, the Bardot bum appeared less by Godard’s design than under pressure from producer Carlo Ponti, and, though hardly an unwelcome presence, it’s tangential to the movie’s purposes. Godard embeds the dissolution of a marriage (which very likely probes his own split from actress Anna Karina) within a sad farewell to European cinema and, beyond that, to the iconic dramas of ancient Greece, usurped in his view by the vulgar psychologizing of contemporary art forms. Based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, which Godard (probably unfairly) disparaged, Contempt follows an unusually classic narrative structure; that may be why it’s so popular with those who find Godard willfully obscure. But it’s as layered as anything he’s made — a movie about making a movie, in which the camera periodically turns on the moviegoer, implicating us in the struggles of its spiritually depleted characters. Hired by American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the script of a movie version of Homer’s Odyssey, being directed by Fritz Lang (played by Lang himself, whom Godard idolized), conflicted screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) makes a seemingly inconsequential gaffe that fans into a full-blown domestic crisis as his wife, Camille (Bardot), makes no secret of her growing revulsion for her spouse. The famous half-hour sequence, in which the couple hash out their differences in real time while opening ever-deeper wounds amid the garish anonymity of their modern apartment, remains as searing as ever. The real struggle in Contempt is not neurosis or even art corrupted by commerce but, as Camille sighs, “life itself” — the battle of individuals to rise above their circumstances. Godard can be a gifted hater, but despite the movie’s title, its tone is elegiac, introspective and achingly mournful. Re-released for the second time (it came to Los Angeles in 1997) in a new 35mm print, Contempt is a perfectly devastating marriage of beauty and loneliness. (Nuart)


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