Why Is Contempt So Important?


Contempt is so important because it gives people a great reason to argue passionately on whether the film is a masterpiece of art, or a failed experiment. If you actually compare the plot of Contempt to the plot of The Odyssey, of course Contempt falls short. You weren’t supposed to do that. But if you put away such notions and embrace Contempt on purely filmic terms, it succeeds on many levels. First, the film packs a huge punch. It is able to harness the power of many weighty, historical things, like The Odyssey, like Fritz Lang himself, like the big machine that is a Technicolor camera. Like Jack Palance in all his monstrosity, and Bridgette Bardot, who is, at the very least, the epitome of cinematic female beauty. Like the words-cannot-describe the natural beauty of Capri. And other things. It should come as no surprise given all these highly charged ingredients that the film has its detractors. It’s too manipulative, too arrogant, lacking a solid narrative structure. Here is something from an essay I grabbed where a guy pits his love for Contempt against Rosenbaum’s dismissal:


“In his essay on the film, Rosenbaum, while considering it a masterpiece, argues that Godard fails as a storyteller. He complains that Godard cuts to flashbacks and fantasies, elides the soundtrack at certain points, makes cultural allusions that distract from the narrative, has Paul pick up a gun only never to use it again, has Lang directing a film that “simply looks awful,” and introduces Camille as a “former typist” when Brigitte Bardot is “the unlikeliest ‘former typist’ imaginable.” Surely, though, this critique is misleading. It measures Le Mépris as if Godard was merely a conventional director making a conventional linear film. But Godard’s films, as Sontag once argued, “destroyed” cinema and created their own purpose and structure, and so it is only sensible that they be measured by different criteria.”


Ok okay. You all have a point! More:


“If Le Mépris lacks a formal rigor, if its attenuated sequence of events only suggests a story, it is because Godard has created a different type of film. “A story,” Sontag argued, “in the traditional sense – something that’s already taken place – is replaced by a segmented situation in which the suppression of certain explicative connections between scenes creates the impression of an action continually beginning anew, unfolding in the present tense.


            And the very thing that is unfolding is a great emotional tragedy, told with the utmost tenderness and beauty. Godard disregards cause and effect and psychological explanation not only because these tools are too conventional, but also because he understands what Cubists, Modernists, and other abstract artists understand: that life itself is a sum of fragmented parts, of memories, flashbacks, wishful fantasies, of past and present and things to come. In Le Mépris, the reasons for Camille’s growing contempt for Paul are never fully explained. Certainly, there are events that set their marital breakdown in motion: Paul’s condescension to take a hack screenwriting job diminishes his stature in Camille’s eyes, although his willingness to let Prokosch make passes at her hurts her the most. But when Paul asks Camille why her feelings have changed, all she says is: “I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t love you anymore.” The dynamics of the relationship are given in impressions that create a sum larger than its parts; they suggest that reality and people change, that love and passion ebb and flow and sometimes die without a single cause, that mistrust and boredom and dishonesty exact heavy tolls, and that people too often fail to see themselves and others properly. The film presents all of this as a sincere lament. Camille says in a voice-over: “We used to live in a cloud of unawareness, in delicious complicity. Things happened with sudden, wild, enchanted recklessness. I’d end up in Paul’s arms, hardly aware of what had happened.” And then Paul in voice-over says: “The recklessness was now absent in Camille, and thus in me.”


I agree. Why is a cubist approach to filmmaking any less valid than it is in painting? Surely the answer is not already settled? But here is what I see as Rosenbaum’s most valid criticism.


“Godard disregards cause and effect and psychological explanation not only because these tools are too conventional…”


Exactly. I do think psychological plausibility is important. If it’s good enough for Bergman, it should be good enough for Godard. We cannot ignore Rosenbaum’s point about Bardot not being a believable typist. This is huge. Contempt  may invoke all the tragic emotion it wants to for many thematic and aesthetic reasons. And I have no objection to the abstract organizational scheme. But there are times throughout the film where both credulity, as well as my tolerance for being manipulated, is strained ever so slightly. For example, how in the world did these two ever get together in the first place? I want to know.


“We used to live in a cloud of unawareness, in delicious complicity.”


Oh, well that settles that then. Regarding Camille’s motivations, my practical interpretation is that she does (develop enough contempt to make her) fall out of love with Paul. But when?  Does the film adequately answer this central question? Godard certainly invites us to believe we are witnessing the process unfold. Is it when she protests against going in the car with Prokosch? Because she’s already felt an attraction to him and is trying to resist it? Or was the marriage already well over by then? When Paul arrives at the villa with bumbling excuses, it’s definitely over. Surely?


And for Paul’s part, did he tell her to go because he is insecure and wants to test her faithfulness? Or because he is bored and wants to titillate himself with such games? Or because he is simply trying to be rational, even if that’s not what she really wants. “Odysseus told her to accept the gifts because he didn’t want to cause a scandal.” Paul’s motivation is as interesting as it is ambiguous. But look, people just don’t divorce because of a cab ride. The fact that he flirts with the assistant while simultaneously being jealous of his wife, allows us to feel less sympathy for him as a person. But it may all be academic for Camille if she has already made up her mind long before. Philip Lopate’s (Criterion liner) essay explains a stepwise devolution from the taxi-cab pimping, through the apartment scene, and all the way up to Capri. This interpretation would have to ascribe face-value consequence to the words and actions of the pivotal apartment scene. Did Camille cultivate her contempt for Paul in that scene? Perhaps, but my reading is that one cannot say precisely when she had made up her mind (and that it could have already taken place before the film started). Did she kiss Prokosch because Paul sent her off on the boat with him (just like the car ride scene)? Or was it going to happen anyway? Or had it already happened before, back at Prokosch’s villa? Probably not, but we cannot know for sure. It does seem clear, though, that Paul begins the film with contempt for her (and perhaps just as much for himself, for the world even)? This is important because it provides a basis for Camille having already begun to dislike Paul, perhaps in response, before the film starts. “You move around too much. You keep waking me.” (From the very start of the film.)


Camille and Paul’s subsequent arguments still work in this framework. She doesn’t want to admit she no longer loves him for the same reasons anyone wouldn’t admit that (until they had to). All the contempt and ill-treatment of Camille at the hands of Paul that follows is as much an example of how they had gotten to that point (in some untold prelude) rather than truly consequential. The present commenting on the past. No amount of arguing or pacing or retracing can change their destiny.


But here is the opening for fair critical objection. On the one hand, the events of the story are not necessarily sufficient (the overly choreographed and compressed marital dissolution) or psychologically believable (Bardot as typist?). Yet Godard does seem to offer all of this up as straightforward cause-and-effect. We can’t help but want to interpret each moment as a critical when, of course, the reality (would be) much more unclear or unknowable. And so it boils down to whether you believe Godard expects us to take the story at face value, in which case, the film is a narrative lie and perhaps even annoying. Or are we supposed to simply absorb the drama as a sort of “greatest hits” of Paul and Camille’s painful interactions. I suspect your reaction to the film will likely depend on your disposition toward Godard, and the opposite sex in general, as much as anything else.


Now the fact that Godard presents his story amidst the backdrop of real Greek tragedy certainly opens him up to comparisons. Is his story as powerful as the above-average Greek myth (supposing you could equilibrate for differences in medium, book versus film, and historical context, Greek/not-Greek)? Of course not. But are the truths true, the emotions believable, the arguments and the pain—catharsis? Are these things conveyed? I would certainly say Contempt has contempt nailed. But what about the fact that Godard may have fudged a little in his rather expeditious use of various mythological and philosophical texts? It seems clear Godard is willing to simply borrow the gravitas through the insertion of Homer and Lang (film history gravitas). Take away that and Raul Coutard’s Cinemascope and Bardot, and you’re pretty much left with an Eric Rohmer film in Capri. I would argue that to the extent that this bothers you, it bothers you. But hey, such film tactics are absolutely fair game. And if you don’t mind and are happy to enjoy Godard’s brand of chicanery, then that’s fine too.


One can debate whether or not Paul is a tragic figure in the epic sense of Odysseus, Oedipus, Hamlet. His tragic flaw, if there is a definable one, is that he’s an asshole, and he let’s his ego and insecurities get the best of him. In other words, he’s pretty much like the rest of us. If he has an epiphany, it will have to come after the film is ended. In Greek tragedy, Paul would have realized his error and changed his ways, only just in time to actually witness the crash.


Also, I have to admit Godard’s reinvention of the Odysseus myth is actually pretty interesting. I normally bristle (if I can’t eschew) modern retellings, but this one grabbed me my the upper arm and stomach and still hasn’t let go. At the start of the film Prokosch offers his “theory about the Odyssey” that Penelope was unfaithful. This becomes the prophecy which Paul himself will cause to be true. Godard’s work is so insightful because it is exactly this kind of male insecurity, which is as old as Homer and will always cause men to doubt Penelope. And it is this very doubt which seems to fuel Paul’s contempt for Camille (and in turn the reverse). So whether you want to call it a tragedy, or just a good unlove story, it’s very much a cautionary tale. If you too suspect all females, you will side with Paul. If not then not. If you can’t make up your mind, you’ll be forced to write an essay.


And suppose the film does make you go back and reread the Homer. And suppose the plot of Contempt falls even further after you do. Then more power to Homer, and aren’t you better off too for having read it? And what film made you go and do that? Yeah? Yeah? Are you listening Tim? Look. Contempt may be flawed, but damn if it isn’t powerful.