Jean-Luc Godard (1963)
Although the characters repeatedly express contempt for each other, either more or less explicitly, Jean-Luc Godard is the scorner-in-chief. I’d dozed off before the end of Philip Kemp’s introduction but I got the message that Godard loathed the unaccustomed experience of international co-production and didn’t think much either of the Alberto Moravia source material (Il disprezzo (1954)), which Godard adapted. The two main characters are Pierre Javal, a French novelist hired by Jeremy Prokosch, an American film producer, to rework a screenplay, and Javal’s wife Camille. The script that Prokosch wants fixing has been written by the movie’s director, Fritz Lang, who plays himself: the film within the film that Lang is making is an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. (In real life, by the time Le mépris was made, Lang had already directed his last movie.) There’s a huge discrepancy between the emotional potential of the lines being spoken, as Camille (Brigitte Bardot) and Pierre (Michel Piccoli) say what they think of each other, and the lack of expression in the faces and voices of the actors. Of course Bardot and Piccoli aren’t themselves uninteresting: he’s a fine actor and she’s an amazing camera subject. It’s remarkable how utterly different she looks when she put on a dark wig – her pouting but oddly dainty petulance is intriguing. She’s used offensively, though: it’s not only in an early sequence, which Godard supposedly included as a sop to the picture’s producers (Carlo Ponti, Joseph E Levine and Georges de Beauregard), that she’s undressed. Jack Palance is terrible as the philistine Hollywood producer Prokosch (according to Philip Kemp, Godard couldn’t stand Palance any better than he could Levine – so he may have been happy for Palance to perform so crudely).
The characters’ faces never crack – the only comedy comes in the translations supplied for Prokosch and Pierre by a bilingual young woman (Giorgia Moll) whose face you never seem quite to see. The sea and the cliffs at Capri have a disorienting grandeur – it’s only when you’re watching seascape (photographed by Raoul Coutard), rather than people, that the passionate refrain of Georges Delerue’s lovely music seems to be supporting rather than contradicting what’s on screen. Philip Kemp explained that the film was packed with quotes from other films. I missed most of them but was struck that some people in the BFI audience seemed to find even basic references inherently witty. All Godard needed to do to elicit chuckles or murmurs of approval was to show Brigitte Bardot reading a book by Fritz Lang or have someone else mention that a Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray movie was showing at a local cinema. I think the only time I felt sympathy with any of the characters was when Bardot’s Camille, in the middle of a philosophising conversation, asked, ‘When do we eat?’ Particularly in the early sequences in and around Cinecittà, the movement of the camera suggests a film being made at many removes: Godard makes you very conscious, as you watch, of your own boredom. His contempt is infectious that so it’s hard to be roused to the heat of anger. What I don’t get is the obviousness of his hero worship, as it’s illustrated in Le mépris, of the films and the film-making that he sees as worthwhile.
17 February 2014