Contempt (1963)     

Jean-Luc Godard

The space is filled with recorded sounds of a middle-aged couple crashing blindly into ontological and linguistic walls, ŕ la Samuel Beckett: 'I don’t want to lose you'; 'You’ve never had me'; 'Why say anything?'; 'There is nothing to say.' The two people start to mishear each other; the dialogue repeats with each one taking the other’s role, ad infinitum. The setting is dramatic yet what strikes one most vividly about such rote world-weariness is Rondinone’s recouping of its familiarity. If Beckett’s outlook was once memorably described by Georges Perec’s biographer, David Bellos, as 'ambient pessimism,' here is pessimism writ so large, made so omnipresent, that one begins to mutate to accommodate its inescapable presence—as if one were suddenly able to breathe underwater.
I DID NOT WRITE THIS; THIS EMAIL WAS SENT TO ME: Ok, so i saw contempt last night. I thought it was pretty bad. In fact, I'm surprised you could have recommended it. I haven't read your essay about it — do you have one? — so I'll just tell you what I thought in a vaccuum. First, yes: the visuals were beautiful. The characters were shallow (I mean not just in personality but in their conception) and cartoonish. Caricatures, not characters. I realize that was to some degree intentional — it was supposed to be somehow funny or stylized to see Jack Palance doing all that, but it wasn't. It was lame.

The movie betrays Godard's essential weakness as a thinker — he's a shallow man who throws a lot of ideas and theories at you that he hasn't fully digested, thinking that will somehow give his works intellectual resonance. The Bazin quote at the start, the reading from Sartre, the various parables told throughout, the quotes from Dante and Holderlein and the like — they don't make the movie any deeper, because they don't hang together. They don't make much sense. To take one example, Lang tells the hero that Ulysses is great because it presents nature as it is — the Greeks understood nature as it was. What does that mean? It means nothing, really: it sounds sort of interesting, but it isn't. And since it's never fully taken up — we have to get on to the next heavy quote — it feels like so much decoration. And because the movie clearly aims at so much — it's not just trying to be a diversion — when it fails at what it aims for, it fails in a much bigger way than it would if it were just aiming for, say, Raiders of the Lost Arc (which is 20 times the movie contempt is).

The ulysses parallel — driven home through the constant cutting between the hero and the statue of poseidon, who's harassing him in the same way ulysses was harassed — is equally empty. It does nothing — the hero is not a modern day ulysses. Not only has that metaphor already been done in Joyce, to much greater wisdom, it isn't even fully developed.

The love story is fatuous and boring. Who cares if she loves him or not? Their relationship is of no interest to us — whether it lasts seems equally pointless. The hour they spend arguing in the apartment... had a few moments. But like the rest of the film it was self-indulgent and pretentious.

The woes about producers who care only about money, and the poor great artist sacrificed in the bargain are the kind of things 19 year olds bitch about when they're signed to a new record company. It's not new, it's not interesting — in this context. The whole movie is an argument to give the producers and the market even more power — maybe if they'd worried more about commercial success, they wouldn't have been allowed to make such self indulgent trash. To think that trying to make something popular and commercially successful is somehow a sign of artistic shallowness or failure is as shallow as thinking that just because a movie isn't popular it's deep. It's not. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Mozart — all of these men were popular successes in their day. (I know I'm off subject here.)

Anyway, that movie was not good. There was almost nothing redeeming about it — and it made me mad, that Godard thinks he can foist off such a poorly done story, with such shallow characters, as art.

There's an almost perceptible scorn for the viewer in that movie — as if telling us nothing, and depriving us of the barest elements to make us care about the reader — is to test our fortitude, to weed out the weak and the ignorant. I find it kind of offensive, really.