BFI Jean-Luc Godard Season – Le Mépris (1963)
You might think I need my head examined, committing to a BFI season in the midst of probably the most intense month of new release essentials I can recall since I started this blog, but what can I say other than here we are. Despite two or three essential new films hitting multiplexes every January weekend (next weekend alone has the choice of The Assassin, The Big Short or Room) I was also drawn to the BFI’s exhaustive Jean Luc Godard season, mostly to challenge myself and my previously conceived cinematic palette. Like a lot of boisterous cinephiles I spent my late teens and early twenties seeing as much of the officially recognized ‘canon’ as I possibly could, mercilessly devouring as much Dreyer and Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa as I possibly could, a crash course in self-taught film studies which didn’t necessarily operate within a competent or robust framework of film history and its technical and formal evolution. Like any starry eyed celluloid wetback I wasn’t mature enough to fully digest the vast majority of what I was seeing, and many of my early formed opinions and peccadilloes have remained imperviously intact – Lang, Lynch, Leone, Bresson, and Malick will never be unseated from the Menagerie hall of champions, plus the immediately embedded likes of Carpenter and Kubrick who remain the all time unimpeachable omnipotent titans. I used to think for example that Francis Coppola, Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone were among the greatest directors to have lived, now I recognize their fantastic individual contributions are not remotely in the same league as the overwhelming achievements of Tarkovsky or Powell, Wilder or Hitchcock. It’s only as you get older, as you mature and are exposed to a wider menu of material and crucially revisit key texts with the benefit of life experience that previously underwhelming figures begin to make sense, as initial antipathy starts to thaw and previously impenetrable styles or statements slowly unveil their treasures. Now that’s not to say that I don’t reserve some critical faculty, I don’t find every director quoted on the Sight & Sound list as above reproach, and despite ‘getting’ Eisenstein and Fellini to name but two I can admire their essential contributions yet don’t particularly care for their work on any emotional or personal level, although with the former I’d be surprised if anyone found his formalist breakthroughs even remotely ‘moving’ like, say, a Frank Capra or a Truffaut picture. They are different beasts with different prey, with fur and talons that hunt through different ecosystems, their repeated themes and styles preferable to some and not others due to our own individual movie musing constitutions – I loathe musicals even when Scorsese makes one, and no doubt some equally passionate cineastes dislike horror pictures like Psycho or just because the subject matter doesn’t map to their personalities. This is all my extremely roundabout and exhausting way of saying that I’ve never particularly cared for Jean-Luc Godard but was aware of his importance, but in the spirit of a new year I thought that revisiting some of his better known works on the big screen might be an illuminating experience – and it was.
In that light I’ve decided to restrict myself to a light touch when it comes to this season, and I’ve only selected two films, both of which I vaguely enjoyed when I first saw them on TV, for this hesitant return to everyone’s favorite nouvelle vague crypto Marxist provocateur. Godard adapted Contempt from the 1954 novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, in what is widely considered as one of his most personal films, which despite its lukewarm response was come to be regarded as a masterpiece of 1960’s European cinema. The story, as much as there is a conventional story rests on a disintegrating marriage between Parisian screenwriter, Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and his beautiful wife Camille, played by Brigitte Bardot at the apex of her international fame and sexpot popularity. At the time Godard’s marriage to actress Anna Karina was also in a tabloid covered turbulent difficulty, with Godard accepting this directing commission from producer Carlo Ponti without final cut or complete control of script or casting. In the film Paul is summoned to Rome, to the glorious Cinecitta studios in order to spruce up a screenplay for a prestigious adaption of Homer’s The Odyssey that’s floundering in production, directed by the great Fritz Lang who plays himself in an early and beloved instance of intertextual tinkering. The puppet master of the drama is Tinseltown producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), a blustering personification of Hollywood’s baser commercial instincts, who becomes quite excited at the prospect of more scantily clad maidens, battlefield mayhem and murder and its box office potential instead of Lang’s high minded classical fidelity to the ancient text. Suspicions arise that Paul is engineering a dalliance between Jerry and Camille in order to secure his employers fiscal affections, dismissing her reluctance to be pimped out despite the couples poor financial position. So the modern meets the ancient as artistic ideals clash against commercial realities, set against a declining studio system which Lang personified that by the 1960’s was inevitably fading into history.
My return to one of Godard more famous films from his fifty year (and counting) career was a thoroughly satisfying experience, with a glistening, freshly struck new digital print that is touring the country. The immediate items to discuss is Godard’s playful disregard for convention, constantly reminding you that you’re watching an artificial construct, a movie, through humorous and good-natured asides and affectations – strange shatterings of mise-en-scene, dialogue exchanges which emanate from a fictional movie world rather than any non-fictional fulcrum. This was still new in 1963, this was way before the self-referential spasms of Scream or Tarantino as the obvious antecedents, but rather than ape well established postmodern forms Godard struck out in his own unique direction, before such a cultural concept had even been widely identified or accepted. Contempt, to give it its English translation is an intimate film with a long middle stretch which is just Bardot and Picoli prowling their Mediterranean apartment, arguing and debating their relationship in a heightened and slightly artificial manner, but still managing a sense of universal appeal as their suspicions and vulnerabilities come under the cameras close scrutiny. In the wider plot the immaculately groomed, monocle mounted artist Lang is a representative of cinema’s conscience, asserting the fidelity to the source material and marshalling his intellect to take the text through the simulacra of the screen his noble almost saintly purpose, with Palance’s boorish producer a mirror to the venal aspects of the industry and its lust for the lowest common denominator, signifying the disgust of the title. The fictional bleeds into the real with the history Godard being forced to cast Bardot against his wishes and being instructed to include a nude scene to placate the investors, but he somehow turns the salacious into the sublime, through his formal command of the improvisation grasp of film form. He digs the rabbit hole digs further with a startling use of colour through Raoul Coutard’s ravishing sun-kissed photography, the blues, the whites and reds standing in stark contrast to the palette costume and props signified of their importance with foreshadowing of their narrative purpose and individual character temperatures. The visual accedes to the aural with a similarly spritely use of sound and music, this is the common refrain that runs throughout the film in a jargon of scene selections. In other places the score cuts dead as if the composer was shot dead off-screen, it’s quite humorous and jarring, constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie, jostling a cosmopolitan shape to the entire film which churns at every appreciative conscious and subliminal level.
I’d be failing in my journalistic duties if I didn’t advise that the newly struck digital print is just sublime, those colours pop out of the screen and it looks as fresh as a Marvel franchise picture. Yes, naturally you see a very slight change in grain and degradation of quality in some scene transfers which presumably is struck from a deteriorated master, but overall the new format injects fresh vitality into this vibrant art-house masterpiece. Bardot was the contemporary equivalent of some Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift or Rhianna hybrid back in 1963, the ‘it’ girl who dominated the discourse in the tabloids and media landscape, and indeed Godard was accused of selling out by the intelligentsia by accepting this high-profile assignment. In her brief introduction to the screening Anna Karina made some rather strange remarks, that Godard assaulted Ponti after production which resulted in a broken leg, although the court case at the time found him innocent of any grievous intention due to the witnesses closing rank with Godard – I hope the statute of limitations has expired on that one as Godard is still knocking around. I can’t help but place Le Mépris within that fine prestige of films where insiders offer a scathing insight into the industry, from Truffaut’s Day For Night, Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Minnelli’s The Bad & The Beautiful, Altman’s The Player and more recently Cronenberg’s Map To The Stars, the rather on the nose title of this film makes his objective opinion brutally clear. He’ll never be in my top pantheon of directors but being older and wiser I can perhaps more fully appreciate Godard’s achievements in this early phase of his career, that mischevious breaking of the fourth wall, the strange flashes of surrealism and glitches in narrative logic are less irritating and more charming than I recalled, and I’m actively looking forward to the next BFI visit for another of his 1960’s pictures. Also, talk about prolific, Le Mépris was his sixth film since his feature debut in 1960, and in the first seven years of his career alone he directed fifteen texts – two more than Stanley managed throughout his entire career fifty year career. In the opening of the film Godard quotes the eminent cultural theorist Andre Bazin, stating that ‘cinema is better than real life, that it is the real world as we imagine it‘, now that’s an assertion that the Menagerie can fully endorse;