Le Mepris

 (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Italy, 1963) 101 minutes


Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producers: Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Based on the novel Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Editor: Agnes Guillemot
Music: Georges Delerue
Brigitte Bardot (Camille Javel)
Jack Palance (Jeremy Prokosch)
Michel Piccoli (Paul Javel)
Giorgia Moll (Fancesca Vanini)
Fritz Lang (Himself)
Jean-Luc Godard (Assistant director)
Linda Veras (Siren)

Reviews and notes

A film about - among other things - integrity. The basic situation, faithfully adapted from Moravia's novel, concerns a young woman (Bardot) who is gradually possessed by an overwhelming contempt for her husband (Piccoli), a writer beset by doubts when he is called in as script-doctor to a film of The Odyssey, being made by a director (Lang) who wants to capture the reality of Homer's world, and a crass producer (Palance) who just wants more mermaids. Yes, she agrees that the money will be useful; no, she doesn't feel he is selling out since he is interested in the subject; and which ever way he decides to jump is perfectly all right by her. But there still remains that tight knot of contempt which she won't explain and he doesn't understand. Around this Godard weaves subtle parallels with Homer's tale of patient Penelope, the statues of Minerva and Neptune which brood over the modern tragedy, locations which paradoxically set the airy spaces of a flat in Rome against the confines of the Homeric landscapes of Capri, and for good measure a stream of cinematic jokes. Magnificently shot by Raoul Coutard, it's a dazzling fable.
- Tom Milne, Time Out Film Guide.

Two identical betrayals followed by two increasingly bitter arguments chart the dissolution of Paul and Camille's marriage. Between them Godard places an interlude of tormented calm: the scene at a cinema where Prokosh auditions a girl who will agree to strip off for him next day and where the film that follows (of which Camille glimpses the opening) is Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia. The cascading warmth, pathos, and sheer ingenuity of this sequence - the relished awfulness of the audition itself, the brazen eradication of all background noise whenever the principals speak, the joke about BB (Brecht, of course), and above all the unforced reminder of the marital stasis so achingly suffered by the couple in Rossellini's film - these are the things that with a remarkably forceful pang make one wish that Godard still made them now like he did then.

In 1963, the year, too, of Godard's other Rossellini film Les Carabiniers, his form of cinema was still more than holding its own against the distant clouds of political engagement - and cinema, for Godard, still meant love, life and tragedy on a grand Hollywoodise scale, references to Hltchcock, Hawks, Garbo, and all. At the same time, personal anguish was creeping in already as a sinister undercurrent.

"I am convinced," Coutard told an interviewer at the time, "that Godard is trying to explain something to his wife in LE MEPRIS. It's a sort of letter - one that's costing Beauregard a million dollars." Characteristically, and because they are the fundamental cause of all Godard's crises, his letter is full of contradictions, ambiguities, uncertainties - all, perversely enough, that can be relied upon is the written word which does not change. The close-up of Camille's closing line is terrible in its finality, more drastic, more meaningful because less transient, than anything she has previously spoken.

The film is constructed upon the existence of written opinions, embracing everything from Homer to cheques, a series of interlocking writings which throw up another dreaded obstacle: the problem of interpretation. In Prokosh's Odyssey the wife is fickle, in Paul's the husband; only Lang's pragmatic version, with its denial of fatalism and staunch defence of common sense ("To kill a rival in love solves nothing") seems likely to survive. Yet if Lang prefers to dispense with the gods, Godard insists on keeping them around - thrust a little ignominiously into the role of Chorus, to be sure, but sustaining, with an insidious subtlety, their proper spheres of influence. Neptune, enemy of Ulysses (and implicitly of Paul), sweeps his arm across the screen on both occasions that Camille is carried away; it is into the sea, Neptune's domain, that Camille vanishes after her final quarrel with her husband. Minerva, fickle champion of heroes, is the placid supervisor of Paul and Camille's moments of elation, as when they arrive jubilantly at their Rome apartment.

And Godard compounds this subtlety with his use of colour. Broadly, LE MEPRIS is told in terms of blue and red, with yellow as a neutral shade; superficially, blue (the shade of Paul's suit, Camille's headband) represents equilibrium, red (the glaring colour of Prokosh's car) the customary mood of menace. Neptune's eyes, however, are painted blue, and Minerva's red - an apparent contradiction of their allegiances until one realises that it is blue, after all, that the couple needs to tear most: the colour of the sea, of Camille's outfit in the car at the end, the colour, in short, of independence and passionless tranquillity.

It is Paul, not Prokosh, who destroys the marriage, even though Camille's first entry into the abruptly accelerating car is deliberately filmed in the same way as her last - as if she had been lost to Paul from the moment the vehicle shot between them. Godard's letter is self-accusatory, and with its naked longing it has surely only been excelled by Pierrot le Fou in the spelling out of utter tragedy.
- Philip Strick, Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1970.

Weblink: Review by Edward Guthman, San Francisco Chronicle, August 15, 1997

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