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The Criterion Collection presents
Contempt (Le Mépris) (1963)

"When it comes to making movies, dreams aren't enough."
- Francesca (Giorgia Moll)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: April 03, 2003

Stars: Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance
Director: Jean-Luc Godard

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:43m:26s
Release Date: December 10, 2002
UPC: 037429173121
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

These days especially, it's not difficult to distinguish between American mores and French ones (you want freedom fries with that?), and cinematically, that's long been the case as well. The fact that many of the vanguard directors of the nouvelle vague started as film critics is a transition that is all but unthinkable in this country—can you imagine the hot new picture being un film de Gene Shalit?

It's no surprise, then, given the pedigree of Jean-Luc Godard as both a critic and director with a fevered interest in the process of moviemaking, that the filmmaker was drawn to Le Mépris, the novel by Alberto Moravia that served as the basis for this movie, an insider's look at the Italian film business in the early 1960s. But Godard's picture isn't merely about filmmaking; it's about the dissolution of a marriage, and the temptations inherent in the production of fantasy.

Michel Piccoli plays Paul, a novelist and playwright who meets the mortgage by working in the film business, despite his distaste for movies. He's brought in by an American producer, Jerry Prokosch, to punch up the script on the latest film by Fritz Lang, a screen version of Homer's The Odyssey. Prokosch is played with animalistic zeal by Jack Palance, who believes that, since he signs the checks, everyone is entitled to his opinion: "I like gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel. Exactly." And Lang plays himself, looking every inch the legend, with his natty pinstripe suit and omnipresent monocle—he's precisely what a director should look like, and he's got the film credits and battle scars from mixing it up with producers to prove it.

And Paul has a dangerously pretty wife. Her name is Camille, and she is played by Brigitte Bardot, at that time surely the most famous actress in France, if not the world—Prokosch is taken with Camille, and there's more than a suggestion that Paul contemplates trading his wife's favors for the money he needs to pay off their enormous apartment in Rome.

The film breaks down into three fairly distinct acts, which are deliberately made to feel rather disjointed from one another. The first is Paul's introduction to the making of The Odyssey, and the shots we see of the film within the film make Lang's epic look sad and uninspired. Just what is this hornet's nest into which Paul is being drawn? The second act is one extended scene (it runs more than thirty minutes) between Paul and Camille, in their apartment, in which, essentially, their marriage falls apart. Godard seems much more interested in the emotional nuances of their behavior, in the small, intimate gestures between spouses, loaded with familiarity, love gone wrong—he doesn't care much for conventional plotting, and so there are no crazed accusations of infidelity or other more traditional melodramatic elements. But the feeling that these two loved one another once, and are now hopelessly adrift, is palpable. It's a relationship in trouble, and we don't need the flourishes of a soap opera to know it.

The final portion of the film follows the Odyssey production on location to Capri, which truly looks beautiful, but isn't the main concern. It makes manifest many of the themes that have been running through the picture—loyalty, love, art—but in a more meditative way than audiences weaned on traditionally constructed Hollywood stories are used to. It's a film made on a rather grand scale, which is a little odd if you've seen the director's earlier works—Breathless, his first film, is many remarkable things, but one of them isn't epic. The tension generated by the renegade director working on a relatively gargantuan production fuels much of the drama of the film, both on screen and off. Similarly, the polyglot nature of the production in the film—German director, American producer, French writer, Italian location—found many analogues in the production of Godard's own movie, which was financed by some sort of elaborate international consortium.

Godard's use of Bardot is especially artful and worth mentioning, too. She was largely seen as little more than a cinematic sex kitten, a reputation established in films like And God Created Woman. The opening scene of the movie features a long, languorous shot of Bardot's celebrated bottom—you can almost hear the director snarl on this point. You want to see her naked? Here she is, boys. And now you're in for something else altogether.

But that's typical of Godard, and what makes his work here seem so fresh still, forty years later. Contempt is a keen and knowing look at the business of making a movie, but works even better as a soulful portrait of a marriage going south, and it's the director's masterful control over both aspects of his story that make this film such a pleasure to watch and re-watch.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Godard's work with cinematographer Raoul Coutard is lush and marvelously saturated—the director even gets to have fun on screen with Fritz Lang's discussion of the widescreen CinemaScope format, which, he says, "wasn't made for people. It's only good for snakes and funerals." But that certainly isn't the case here, in a handsome transfer that radiates color and energy.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrench, Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The original French mono track is the way to go; it's pretty clean, though necessarily limited in some of its dynamics. An English dub track is also provided, if you absolutely cannot stand reading subtitles, but it doesn't sound very good, for one thing, and for another, many of the interactions between the international cast of characters won't make much sense if they're all dubbed into the same language.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Documentaries
3 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Widescreen versus pan-and-scan demonstration
  2. insert booklet with an essay by Philip Lopate
Extras Review: Criterion has gone whole hog with the extras on this one, and God bless them for that. A second disc is jammed with six documentaries, each of which have a great deal to recommend them.

The Dinosaur and the Baby (01h:00m:11s) is a 1967 conversation filmed for French television between Godard and Lang—at times it's two directors talking shop, and at others Godard slips back into his critic's shoes, and queries Lang about his own working methods. They speak for a while about the right manner in which to understand just what a director is: is he an artist, or a craftsman? Lang prefers to think of a director as a psychoanalyst. It's a great hour of movie talk, and there's obviously a great love between these two. The conversation is intercut with extended clips from Contempt and Lang's M; it also features a sweet little epilogue, discussing how nervous the great Lang was for this interview, and how rigorously he prepared.

Encounter with Fritz Lang (14m:25s), a German short directed by Peter Fleischmann, features interviews with the director on the set of Contempt, along with still more illustrative clips from M. Lang is especially interesting here comparing his carefully composed filmmaking technique with the more improvisatory style of Godard and the new wave. Le Parti de choses: Bardot et Godard (09m:31s), directed by Jacques Rozier, argues (unsuccessfully, I'd say) that the true subject of Contempt is Bardot; it's mostly random on-set footage with slightly pompous narration and no interviews with the principals. It gives the impression that the leading lady was pampered to the point of infantilization, carried around the set like a newborn. Rozier also directed Paparazzi (17m:48s), about the incessant swarm of media around Bardot, who here seems like a caged animal. There's no safe place—even in a parked car, ferocious photographers ferret her out for the slightest glimmer. The paparazzi seem like snipers, if not terrorists, bulldozing their way to get a picture of the most mundane things imaginable, like Bardot walking down a flight of steps.

A 1964 interview (10m:29s) with Godard conducted by François Chalais for a French television show called Cinepanorama shows the director hiding behind sunglasses as he promotes the movie, and discussing the inclusion of the opening shots of Bardot to mollify the film's American producers. The most recently produced extra is a 2002 interview (26m:29s) with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, reviewing other highlights in his extraordinary career—he also shot Breathless and Jules et Jim—as well as the specifics of his working relationship with Godard, who, he says, "always felt the need to do something radically innovative." This interview is especially well intercut with clips from Contempt, showing scenes illustrating the points that Coutard is discussing.

The original trailer gives away much of the story, not that Godard would much care; and a demonstration (05m:10s) on the evils of panning and scanning is, I would guess, for most Criterion viewers, preaching to the choir.

Back on the first disc, film scholar Robert Stam provides a smart if occasionally dry commentary track—he'll occasionally repeat dialogue for us, or make points that should be obvious to all but the most obtuse. But he's very good in discussing Moravia's novel (which Godard didn't much care for, apparently) and some of the circumstances of the film's production, especially Godard's knocking head with his producers, Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levine. Stam reports that Bardot's salary was 50% of the film's budget, for instance, and that Godard, in full-fledged film geek mode, told Piccoli to think of Paul as a character from Last Year in Marienbad who would have preferred to be a character in Rio Bravo. Stam is obviously tremendously knowledgeable about all of Godard's work, but you may find yourself a little at sea if you don't have an extensive working knowledge of many of the director's other films.

Barring more extensive participation from Godard himself, it's hard to imagine a richer and more informative package of extras for this film.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Godard's film is both deeply ironic and profoundly heartfelt, a jaded look at the business of making movies and an elegy for that moment when love dies. It's just a terrific film, and the cornucopia of extras will only help to expand your knowledge of and broaden your appreciation for Contempt.


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