Godard, ‘Contempt’ and the Steven Soderbergh of the 60s

By  · Published on May 20th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they explore the illustrious history of directors declaring cinema dead with a New Wave heavyweight doing battle with American financiers for the first (and last) time. There’s a reason Jean-Luc Godard’s CinemaScope attempt is called Contempt.

In the #21 (tied) movie on the list, an American producer and a film director played by an iconic film director try to make a big budget movie version of Homer’s “Odyssey” while struggling to balance commerce (nude scenes) with art (tasteful nude scenes).

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Landon: So here we have not only our second Godard movie on the list, but at least our third movie about filmmaking (after 8 1/2 and Singin’ in the Rain). In the context of the other work on this list, what makes Contempt’s place on this list not positively redundant? What’s so special about what Godard did in ’63, besides casting Jack Palance’s stone face?

Scott: Since you bring Palance up, I have to start with Contempt’s great mistake: not casting him as a Mexican paramilitary general. That was what made 1966’s The Professionals so damned good.

Landon: I’m convinced Palance could play every part in this movie, including Bardot’s.

Scott: As for redundancy, Contempt feels a bit more all-encompassing than the existential terror of one man in 8 1/2 (and it’s definitely no Singin’ In the Rain).

Landon: All encompassing, how so? Meaning it’s about the film industry as a whole?

Scott: Not only that, but it pings the international film community at large. An American producer (Jack Palance), an Austrian director (Jack Palance as Fritz Lang), a classically Greek antiquity story (Jack Palance as Homer’s “Odyssey”), an Italian descent into hell via Jack Palance as Jack Palance as “Dante’s Inferno.”

Plus, the movie itself based on an Italian novel, all wrapped up with a French sex pot in Brigitte Bardot. And, no, I’m not going to picture Jack Palance as Brigitte Bardot. Sorry.

Landon: Who was one of the biggest European film stars at the time.

Bardot, not Palance, though he was a great TV star. Oh man, Requiem for a Heavyweight.

What struck me about Contempt’s critique of the artistic compromises that come with international economic and artistic interests in a single film is how much it has to say about the film industry’s current crisis that Steven Soderbergh recently spoke about: the need to have cinema speak in some sort of impossible common language to a worldwide audience, and that common language is typically handled in business terms as a lowest common denominator approach.

Godard was essentially making a film about a moment in which supposed distinctions between Hollywood and European art cinema were becoming very blurry.

Scott: I don’t want to get lost in a tangent, but it’s important to point out how close to a “universal language” silent films had.

Landon: It’s true. Film sound was basically our Tower of Babel.

Scott: Damned talkies.

Landon: And, of course, as with so many films on this list, the production of this film greatly mirrored its content. Palance’s Prokosch is based on an American producer Godard worked with, and the film’s central relationship conflict was a decisive mirror that the estrangement Godard was experiencing with his wife, Anna Karina.

Scott: So it’s just as autobiographical, but it feels like it has more to say about production and audiences than 8 1/2 did.

Landon: Yeah, let’s talk about that. In 8 1/2 and Singin’ the film being made is (respectively) vague or overlaps significantly with the film itself as to sometimes be indistinguishable. Here, the film being made is front-and-center throughout. “The Odyssey” is such a productive conflict for petty bickering over studio dollars and truly difficult domestic disputes.

And Contempt is, especially in contrast to Breathless, shot as if it were a Cinemascope Technicolor Hollywood epic of its own, which is such a strange way to shoot an extended scene of domestic conflict. I don’t think anyone used the Cinescope ratio quite like Godard did by 1963.

Scott: For half an hour of yelling?

Landon: Yeah, though to be fair, that’s basically what Ben-Hur was.

Scott: You mentioned Steven Soderbergh, and this is a nice reminder that the battle between art and commerce has raged for long before him – and long before the seventh art was invented. Mel Brooks’ take on cave paintings springs to mind for some reason.

We’re also talking about this on the heels of The Great Gatsby – a literary adaption whose behind-the-scenes production history we know far too much about, and which was derided for being flashy without getting the point.

Can we say Contempt succeeds because it displays the satire so fiercefully?

Landon: It’s forceful, yes, but it’s also layered and clever. The casting of Fritz Lang, for instance is staged as a major part of an international co-production, but Lang’s career was split pretty distinctly between Germany and Hollywood.

The film’s use of Francesca, the translator (at least, according to Robert Stam’s commentary, so I’m going to assume this polyglot knows what he’s talking about) provides nuanced differences between English, German, Italian, and French, which goes back to the whole Tower of Babel thing. It’s not that different countries/cultures can’t collaborate on a film (I’m giving Godard the benefit of the doubt about not being xenophobic), but that being lost in translation provides a nice illustration of conflicts between art and commerce.

Scott: And Lang is a great cipher too. An icon and germinal master himself, there’s also something about hiring a blind director for your meta-movie.

This was also the first and only time that Godard had American financiers.

Landon: Yes, and that opening shot after the beginning credits is allegedly the only time Godard gave in to the demands of financiers.

Scott: That and CinemaScope, which was their (final) decision. And he loathed the process of making this movie.

Which is sort of fascinating – the idea that something so hated by its creator is beloved by the audience. Not to say that Godard didn’t enjoy the sausage itself, but that he cringed at making it.

Landon: And he turned everything he hated about making it on its head. The financiers wanted CinemaScope, so he used it for a half-hour scene of domestic conflict where Camille and Paul are located far away on either end of the screen. The financiers asked for more Bardot nudity, so he used it for an opening scene in which Camille and Paul spell out the objectification and commodification of Bardot’s body. He hated working with the American producers, so he condensed them into a despicable character that acts as a totem for everything that is wrong with American filmmaking.

Contempt is hardly a simplistic “art compromising vision” satire, but it’s a thoroughly realized critique of a particular moment of Western filmmaking at large.

Scott: That wonderful moment where people who see dollar signs catch on to a new movement.

“How can we exploit this new thing’s popularity?”

Landon: And that people saw mainstream moneymaking potential for the French New Wave definitely makes this film of a moment that may never exist again.

Scott: Can you imagine an alternate universe where those financiers and producers sought to understand what the French New Wave was doing, then brainstormed the best way possible to earn a meaningful, larger audience for it?

I mean, if they could sell 2001 to kids, couldn’t they sell Godard too?

Landon: I want to be in on the meeting where a producer sees Breathless and thinks, “This could be a historical epic in CinemaScope with a sexy, voluptuous lead.”

Scott: It’s all about how you cut the trailer.

If they’d only known about the Inception Brhmmmphhhhhh and dubstep back then.

Landon: Get on that, Internet.

Scott: Please.

Landon: Prokosch at one point states that men made gods (not the other way around) and that cinema is dead or dying. Why, then, is the film within a film one about classical mythology? Are the gods of cinema dead or dying at this point? After all, “the director” in Contempt is one of the most celebrated silent film directors, who had to flee Europe for Hollywood because of the onset of fascism.

Scott: Maybe the idea of cinema dying was actually fresh at that point. I imagine it probably felt that way to a “true artist” who had sunk knee-deep into the quicksand of moneymen. As an idea now, it’s both tired and brand new. Cinema is perpetually dying.

Look at all the notice Soderbergh got. If you want the spotlight, call the Romans around you to lend their ears and then bury Kodak without praising it.

Landon: But to bring this back around, Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers declared cinema dead or dying with the onset of sound.

Cinema is dead. Long live cinema.

Scott: Honestly, this all just shows the insular nature of this kind of permanence. I hate to get into the nature of the Sight & Sound list itself, but it seems like a great way to get on it is to make a movie about making movies.

Especially one that lambasts the powers that be. Whoever they are.

In other words, I can’t wait for Tropic Thunder to break the top ten in 2032.

Landon: That and Burn Hollywood Burn.

But you’re right. Every movie Godard made is somehow about movies, but out of the 4 Godard titles on the S&S list (more than any other director), Contempt and the experimental Histoire(s) du Cinema are overtly about cinema and filmmaking.

Perhaps the medium is purest when it’s about itself, but few films (except maybe Singin’ in the Rain) are about filmmaking gone well.

Filmmaking is about the inherent limits of filmmaking.

Scott: So if you want to achieve immortality, have something to say about inside baseball.

Of course, it helps if you actually develop something to say about it.

Landon: Yes, but as long as there’s absolutely no actual baseball.

And even in Godard’s most certifiably “mainstream” film, he had more than a few things to say about it before continuing a career for 50 more years.

I guess cinema ain’t dead yet.

Scott: At least Godard isn’t.

Landon: But CinemaScope is.

Scott: That looks good. I think we’ve had about 5 endings to this conversation.

Landon: That’s ’cause this is a New Wave article.

Next Week: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet.

Be Part of More Movie Discussions

Or Enjoy a Different Feature

An author similar to Hydra. Its articles have many authors. It has many heads. Please don’t cut off any of its heads, we’re trying to work here.