Imagine being Jean-Luc Godard in the early 1960s. The scion of a wealthy Franco-Swiss family, educated (fitfully, incompletely) at the Sorbonne, you've never exactly had to struggle. But you've also done something rather unusual: you've not only found your métier – a rare thing, even for those with the luxury to experiment – but excelled in it. To the extent, in fact, that you can be said to have actually transformed it: just as there is reckoned to be cinema before Citizen Kane and after it, your own debut feature, 1959's Breathless, marked a similar rupture in the narrative. After which nothing was ever quite the same again.
It falls to only a handful of figures in history to have so profound an impact upon their medium. And yet… something rankles; there is the sense, somehow, of unfinished business. You are fascinated by Hollywood, and troubled by it, too. Not the grand spectacle movies: rather, the personal, auteurist Hollywood of Sirk and Fuller and Ray. Your films are small, 'European', idiosyncratic – they are not made for the masses, much less for American audiences. But could you accommodate your methods, subordinate your preoccupations, to work within that artisan tradition? Even for a single film?
The test of this proposition was Contempt/Le mépris (1963) – based on a novel by Alberto Moravia (A Ghost at Noon), and now acknowledged to be one of Godard's masterpieces. It found the filmmaker shooting not only in colour (as he had for A Woman is a Woman/Une femme est une femme), but in CinemaScope – an aesthetic shift so radical he has one of his characters, played by the veteran director Fritz Lang, one of Godard's heroes, critique it onscreen. (The ratio is useful, Lang sighs, “only for shooting snakes and funerals.”)
The pacing, too, was more relaxed, almost classical (something of a vexed term in this respect, as we will see) – far from the nervy, verité feel of Breathless or the fractured formalism of My Life to Live/Vivre sa vie (1962). It's even divided into three distinct acts: the first, at Rome's Cinecitta studios; the secondvand most remarkable, shot in a near-approximation of real-time – at a married couple's apartment; and the last, on the island of Capri, for the film-within-this-film's shoot. Quite a leap for a filmmaker who once ventured that “a movie should have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order.”
What's also uncanny – or not, when you consider the acquisitive, bricolage-like nature of Godard's practice – is how closely the film's offscreen circumstances mirrored its storyline. Inevitably, Godard soon found himself clashing with his producers, Italian potentate Carlo Ponti, with whom he'd already worked on two films, and Hollywood schlock-merchant Joseph E. Levine, whose own filmography boasts such peerless classics as Mad Monster Party and The Spy with a Cold Nose.
Godard reportedly wanted to cast Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra in the lead roles. (And pause for a moment, if you will, to consider the worlds-colliding collaboration of Ol' Blue Eyes and JLG.) Ponti countered with Sophia Loren – unsurprisingly, since she was at that time his wife – and Marcello Mastroianni; Godard, perhaps on principle, refused.
In the end, they settled on Michel Piccoli and, more importantly, on Brigitte Bardot – Ponti for reasons lascivious (he figured, whatever arthouse tricks JLG had in store, an audience would still pay to see BB naked), but Godard seemingly because he saw something in her, some untapped potential for melancholy beneath that thrusting, sex-kittenish exterior. (Tellingly, it was not their only collaboration: Bardot appears again, fleetingly and unbilled, in 1966's Masculin, Feminin.)
And Godard still didn't shoot her nude: those early scenes, of the couple in bed, were actually re-shoots, done at Ponti's insistence – though Godard took care to add the coloured filters, precisely the kind of fuck-you to commercial considerations that he was dramatising onscreen.
Unsurprisingly, producer and director never worked together again.
And lo, the film born of compromise becomes a movie about the cost – ethical and moral – of compromise. As indicated above, Contempt the film is about the making of a film: a French screenwriter (Piccoli) is hired by a boorish Hollywood producer (played, with a wolfish energy, by Jack Palance) to re-write a script “based on the Odyssey". He accepts the job mostly for noble reasons – he wants to buy an apartment for his wife (Bardot), who has stood by him during hard years – only to find that he loses her love as a result: she feels not only that he is debasing himself, but that he is allowing the producer to entertain the notion that he might have her. That he does not love her enough to protect her. And like another great film about misunderstanding and betrayal, Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl /La nina santa (2004), the action pivots on a single look: a moment of cataclysmic realisation. Silent. No words are necessary.
But it's also about the bonds of history, about artistic lineage, the uneasy relationship between Old Europe and New America, movies. It's discursive – there are lengthy (by film standards) discussions about Homer, about German Romantic poetry, about Greek mythology, about the then-new global economy. Which is not to suggest for a moment that it lacks for sensual pleasures. On the contrary, its surface is immaculate: Raoul Coutard's cinematography is breathtaking, both for its richness of colour – primary colours, in particular – and its feel for the sun-bleached, antic surfaces of Capri; and the main theme, by Georges Delarue, remains one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful in all cinema.
But then, it's a heartbreaking movie: a study of a relationship disintegrating. To know that, at the time, Godard's own marriage – to his usual star, Anna Karina – was faltering, is a little like hearing Dylan sing 'You're a Big Girl Now' on Blood on the Tracks: a harrowing glimpse at the pain concealed behind the maker's mask. (Coutard later acknowledged the movie was “an extended love-letter” to Karina.)
Predictably, critics have been effusive in their praise. Occasionally, too much so: British archivist, producer and Godard enthusiast Colin MacCabe infamously declared Contempt to be 'the greatest work of art produced in post-war Europe'. It's not – if only because such an index is so vast, and its terms so general, as to be for all intents and purposes meaningless.
It is, however, undoubtedly one of Godard's major works – which makes it, by simple calculation, one of the greatest movies ever made. And somehow, that's enough. It's doubtful that even its maker, who revered Hegel and Hölderlin, who had read Dante and understood the Holocaust and knew, bitterly and at last, the powerlessness of cinema to affect real life – or even hold onto a woman – would wish for higher praise than that.