Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Film Review--Contempt (1964)

In general, to make a film satire work, the writer and director have to pull next to all the emotion away; it’s not easy to laugh sardonically at characters you care about. When the film relies on a doomed romance to move its plot, satire seems untenable. Yet, you can throw all generalities out the window when discussing great filmmakers. Contempt proves the viability of such an idea, but I’d never try such a thing myself. Jean-Luc Godard masterfully balances emotional weight with barbed commentary to create the saddest film ever to work as a satire.

Godard pulls out all the stops in the casting department, making it immediately appealing to classic film fans, both today and in 1964. Our leads and players in this fallen love are Brigitte Bardot (by no means a great actress, but always fun to watch, and is at her pouty, self-parodying best here) and Michel Piccoli (a staple actor of the French New Wave with a filmography so large that the Carradines flinch). Piccoli, as a playwright, is getting his first taste of Hollywood screenwriting or, at least, script doctoring. He’s been hired by producer Jack Palance (playing a man out of his league intellectually, artistically, every way but financially) to fix a version of Homer’s Odyssey that director Fritz Lang (playing himself in what would have been a caricature if Lang himself wasn’t such a nut) has turned into an artsy mess. This setup allows Godard to show the filmmaking process onscreen. While this is a world few members of the audience will understand, the director’s intimate knowledge of and acidic venom toward the industry come out in very clear storytelling. The film is instantly relatable for this, especially if you’re familiar with the myriad of horrid American-funded international productions common in the ‘50s and ‘60s (see, not coincidentally, the 1959 version of Ulysses with Kirk Douglas). We get to see the daily progress on Lang’s film, and it gets increasingly ridiculous. He’s creating something that appears closer to an Ed Wood film than to M, but hey, Lang’s just in it for the money at this point. Lang revels in his performance of himself mailing it in, while Palance prostrates, yelling and screaming about the film, but insisting it continue on unimpeded. Lang throws up his hands and follows along, Piccoli looks increasingly bemused as he wonders how he got himself mixed up in this horrible industry, and Palance’s assistant (the incredibly charming Giorgia Moll) spends her time trying to keep peace amongst all parties while serving as Palance’s whipping post for all his frustration.

As satire, all of this works very well, and that’s fine. What the supporting story brings to the table, however, is what makes Contempt a classic. Bardot and Piccoli make an attractive couple and, in the opening moments of the film, they are very clearly in love. The kind of tender bedroom placations Godard uses to show us this are simple but effective. Bathed in a thick red light, the lovers lay together as Bardot asks Piccoli if he loves this or that part of her body, while Piccoli comes up with florid words to tell her he does. There is a sweet post-coital serenity here that I hope they enjoyed, because it doesn’t last. By morning, Piccoli must meet his producer, and there will be no more peace. Bardot comes with him and, moments after the meeting, we can already see the end coming. A single incident starts the chain and, while it’s a simple misunderstanding to Piccoli, it’s a deal-breaker for Bardot. She isn’t in a position yet to express her thoughts, however, so she stews. Every perceived slight compounds the issue until finally, Bardot has had enough. Piccoli isn’t some confused cuckold; he knows something is deeply wrong in their relationship; he simply loves her too much to let her leave without a fight. The final split is heartbreaking, but after all the torment, becomes necessary. That the end of the relationship is no surprise only makes it hurt worse. Like a spurned lover, the audience hopes against hope that, looking down the barrel of dead romance, they will find a way to be happy. The devastation lies in its inevitability. Does Bardot deserve her comeuppance? No, she’s done very little wrong, but Godard leaves us with no doubt that the relationship is over, no chance for redemption, and this is ultimately the point.

I have described two wholly different films, but the stories intersect enough that they never feel like different entities. Picolli finds meaning in his relationship by reading Homer’s Odyssey, and he interprets the epic poem based on his relationship. The stories work in conjunction in many ways, not just this, and they work very well. I found myself at turns delighted by the absurdity and the satire, but angered and frustrated by the romance. That both sides could move me so strongly, never with the sense that either side got the shaft, this is a sign of great art.