Sunday, June 7, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Contempt (1963)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #21 (tied with L'Avventura and The Godfather)

As noted in the previous Jean-Luc Godard-centered essay in this column, Godard's career has been built on his subversion of Hollywood artifice to create "anti-commercial" films. Typically, this subversion has come courtesy of self-referential twists to standard genres; in Breathless, Jean-Paul Belmondo's character ironically poses and postures himself after Humphrey Bogart, creating a performance of performance that's even more artificial than the Hollywood product he's mimicking. Thus, Godard's films don't necessarily create something closer to "reality" (al a Vittorio Di Sica and the Italian neorealists) so much as create more conspicuous level of reflexivity, a cinema that is self-consciously cinematic.

Contempt, then, was an attempt at continuing this theme through a different means. Loosely based on the novel A Ghost at Noon by Italian author Alberto Moravia, the film finds playwright Paul (Michel Piccoli) being brought to Rome's Cinecitta by producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the script for a big-budget adaptation of Homer's Odyssey for German director Fritz Lang (playing himself). However, Paul struggles with Jeremy's demands for making the film more commercial, as well as with Lang's erratic on-set behavior. In his personal life, his wife Camille (Brigette Bardot) has grown distant, putting a further strain on him and their relationship.

Rather than creating another film where the characters are consciously performing as Hollywood icons, Godard made a film that mocks the studio system itself, particularly the way that capitalist interests crush artistic expression. Even more remarkable is that he made this film within the studio system - the film was made for Cinecitta - and that the film is among his most personal, with the relationship between Paul and Camille bearing very close, self-conscious similarities to Godard's marriage to actress Anna Karina.

More after the jump.

The easiest way to understand Godard's project in Contempt is to divide the film's thematic commentary into three levels. On the surface - the first level - is a critique of the studio system of filmmaking, which Godard contends stifles creative energy for the sake of entertaining the masses and prevents films from truly being works of art. The second level explores Godard's relationship with Karina, a subplot that makes the film achingly personal in its reflection of their state of affairs. The third and final level is a personal re-examination, underlying the other two levels with an analogy to Godard's complicated feelings toward cinema itself. All three of these levels exist concurrently throughout the film, operating to create a cohesive whole but still divisible through analysis.

The first thematic level is perhaps the easiest to position in relation to Godard's overall project. The choice of The Odyssey - an oft-told tale in every artistic medium, not just film - is by no means coincidental, a production that is meant to highlight the creative bankruptcy of the studio system of filmmaking. Casting American actor Palance as a slick producer lends the film a villain that can embody the capitalist interests that Godard felt were ruining cinema, which fits neatly within the context of Godard's previous (and descendent) films. Yet Lang - a real-life influence on the filmmaker - too comes off as a petulant shadow of his former, artistically-progressive self. The studio system, Godard contends, corrupts and crushes all filmmakers who participate in it, and Lang is drained of his creativity in his efforts to mount this epic production. The film's sparse references to Dante's Inferno become more relevant in this light; the gates of Cinecitta (or any production studio) might as well read "abandon all hope, ye who enter."

The second thematic level, however, adds an interesting wrinkle to the film. The deteriorating relationship between Paul and Camille parallels that of Godard's marriage to Karina at the time, to the point that Karina had been the director's first choice for the role of Camille (the film's producers balked, insisting on Bardot). The centerpiece scene of the film is an extended argument between Paul and Camille in their apartment, with Godard's camera making minimal cuts to create an unexpected sense of realism. Bardot is even outfitted with a black wig for this scene that gives her a striking physical similarity to Karina, only adding to the parallel. What makes this interesting is that Godard has used the same artificiality that has been a hallmark of his films to make something that is emotionally honest, giving the scene a facsimile of realism that is often absent in his work. He slyly inserted something personal into his largely impersonal style.

It's the third and final level, then, that ties these ideas together. The two main narratives in the film - Paul's sensibilities (and Lang's, to an extent) against Prokosch's, Paul's estrangement from Camille - essentially boil down to the same conflict: art versus commerce. This is, in a way, Godard fighting with his own filmic philosophy. As noted previously, Godard's work tweaks Hollywood conventions, and he clearly shows contempt towards those conventions. But there's also a (begrudging) admiration for studio filmmaking in those tweaks; it's hard to believe that Godard doesn't find at least some elements of these films appealing, otherwise he wouldn't continue to mock them. However, there is still an oppression of artistic vision in filmmaking when making money is the primary goal of the process, which forms the major premise of Contempt. Ultimately, Godard is arguing that art cannot be created in a commercial vacuum; however, it is commercial works that inspire reactionary art.

Of course, Godard would continue to critique mainstream, studio-system filmmaking throughout his career, with some projects delving further into these themes than others. However, none of his films have ever felt as personal as Contempt. He incorporated elements of his own life into the film's anti-studio sentiments, thus creating a film that's deeply self-reflexive and thorny in its rumination on the definition of art. By blending the personal with the artificial, he created his most impactful film.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" The Godfather Part II (1974)

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