Le Mepris is a highly self conscious, ‘modernist’ example of European Art Cinema. `Contempt'' was Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 attempt at a big-budget, big- star production, and more or less satisfied his curiosity. It was not the direction he wanted to move in, and the rest of his career can be seen, in a way, as a reaction to the experience.
Jean-Luc Godard is arguably one of the most famous and respected directors European cinema has ever seen. He is synonymous with the French ‘Nouvelle Vague’ or New Wave movement and his work during this period, and ensuing influence on the art of direction for cinema, has confirmed his place in cinema history.
The New Wave evolved from the criticism and enthusiasm for cinema of a group of critics writing for Cahiers du Cinema. This magazine was dedicated to the contemplation of cinema from both Europe and Hollywood, and throughout the late 1950s many of its contributors progressed to directing the art form they loved, rather than solely analysing it. The group, which most notably included Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, and of course Godard himself, all made their first films during 1958-59. They were united in their approach to low budget filmmaking and steadfast belief in pioneering new ways of using film for personal expression.
The desire to move away from current traditions and create a movement dedicated to innovative films was instigated by Francois Truffaut and Godard who wanted to move away from the conventional and ostentatious subjects and styles currently prevalent across traditional French cinema. The films of the directors of the French New Wave can be viewed as modernist as they stem from a direct opposition to traditions of the national cinema of their time and often exhibit a self-conscious awareness of genre and above all cinematic techniques and conventions.
During the period of his early career Godard created films that challenged conventional narrative cinema with his use of long takes, editing techniques, especially the jump cut, and by shooting on location. Several of these techniques and motifs can be seen in Le Mepris and are now synonymous with art cinema. We often see psychologically complex characters that lack motivation or a defined goal, as would be expected in classical narrative cinema. The films lend themselves to multiple interpretations and deal with very specific human problems rather than confronting wider subjects.
Produced in 1963, ‘Le Mepris’ saw Godard’s first, and subsequently last, attempt at working with big name international producers and with a much bigger budget than he was used to. The producers, especially Joseph E Levine and Carlo Ponti, were very keen for this film to be commercial and appeal internationally which in many respects compromised Godard’s control of the film. As a result Le Mepris should be viewed as ‘a commentary, at once ironic and nostalgic, on the big budget movie’.
Many critics have interpreted ``Contempt'' as a parallel to The Odyssey, with Piccoli as Odysseus, Bardot as Penelope and Palance as Poseidon, but it is just as tempting to see the frustrated screenwriter as Godard; the woman as Godard's wife, Anna Karina, and the producer as a cross between Joseph E. Levine and Carlo Ponti, who were both attached to the project. Michel Piccoli (in his first role!) is persuasive as a man with few talents and great insecurities; his screenwriter is quite different from the typical Piccoli roles of years to come, when he played men who were confident, smooth, devious.
The self-reflexive, self-conscious nature of Le Mepris is evident from the start; as the film opens with a stationary long shot, which takes in a scene of a camera tracking alongside a female actress. This shot is completed in a long take; in the time it takes the girl, and the camera gliding on rails alongside her, to complete her walk toward our stationary camera. The shot culminates in the ‘on screen’ camera turning to ‘look’ directly into the audience’s camera. The duration and depth of focus of this shot enables the audience to analyse the setting and start to draw conclusions about where the characters are, and who the girl being filmed might be. Even if it is not clear at the point that the setting is Cinecitta, Italy’s famous film studio, then it is clear that this is the set of a film.
The use of a quote from Andre Bazin, Godard’s mentor and a well known theorist of film, at the end of the spoken credit sequence, serves to emphasize the intellect of the director and draw attention to his knowledge of cinema both theoretically and historically. There is also a sense of a Brechtian approach, or one with similar intentions, in operation throughout Le Mepris, where the audience is constantly reminded of the constructed nature of what they are viewing. The way in which the narrative involves the making of a film within a film only serves to stress this further, as the audience is witnessing some aspects of the film production process on screen, through a medium that has undergone these exact processes itself.
Godard’s use of Fritz Lang and Brigitte Bardot and his knowledge of the audience’s preconceptions of his stars, allows him to play with these expectations to undermine what could have been presented as a traditional love story, and transform it into a film about the love of, and struggle for, cinema.