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‘Le Mépris’ (contempt) – Doomed to beautiful failure… (aren’t we all?)

‘Le Mépris’ (contempt) – Doomed to beautiful failure… (aren’t we all?)

January 9 2016

One of the great films of the last century, it is a hauntingly stylish portrayal of two people who drift apart due to the external pressures on them…

IT OPENS with one of the most arresting scenes you could possibly dream up: a beautiful, blonde girl lies naked and insouciantly on her bed, almost as the very plaything of her husband who lies to her side, while she is on her front.

Her naked derriere is on prominent display; the husband strokes her and teases her about her beauty. She is coquettishly deprecating…

The woman is Camille (Brigitte Bardot), the husband Paul is Michel Piccoli. The director is Jean-Luc Godard. It is 1963 and cinema is becoming a very popular form of entertainment – Godard and the New Wave, as it is described, are rewriting the rules of cinema grammar and in doing so, appear hip and on the button.

Brigitte Bardot as Camille Javal in 'Le Mepris'

But the big money producers, while liking the allure of the youth, want numbers and hefty profits. Nudity and sex sell – remember there was no internet and no skin just a click away.

Godard is a progressive figure, a man of the left, who kept moving till he made ‘The Gay Science’ (“Le Gai Savoir”) in 1969 and declared his unwavering Chinese-Maoist influenced Marxism to the consternation of most of the cinema-going public. The film was originally commissioned by French TV but was never broadcast and a theatrical film release was banned.

There were seeds of his uncompromising politics in “Weekend“, a satirical poop at developing consumerist culture. Popular cinema itself was too bourgeois – what mattered was the struggle and how you contributed to it.

Godard is still around, living in Geneva and making films, his last “Goodbye to Language” (2014) featured at Cannes and the London Film Festival that same year. Most critics think his best work such as in “Le Mepris” and “À bout de soufflé” (‘Breathless‘ his first in 1960) and the iconoclastic “Bande à part” (1964) which had a big influence on Quentin Tarantino, is behind him.

Le Mépris” is a reminder of Godard’s greatness – he was the Tarantino of his day – except he also had the politics to go with the attention and the adulation. Interestingly, Tarantino references Godard – and the British Film Institute (BFI) hosts a season of both directors’ films this winter. (See below)

As such as “Le Mépris” is an exacting study of human relations, and beautifully, tragically, crushingly, about a couple who drift into a netherland (without giving it all away).

Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) in'Le Mepris'

It also cocks a snoop at those who financed this film – for there is a film within a film, and misread the nuances and you would think Godard was all style and no substance.

Maybe he was to those who don’t look, don’t think, just let themselves be seduced by Bardot, Capri and the almost untouchable glamour of the 1960s – in lurid technicolour.

At the heart of the drama is screenwriter Paul, struggling to make ends meet (a familiar writerly tale), he takes up the commission of a wealthy US producer, brilliantly reposed by Jack Palance as the movie mogul, Jeremy Prokosch. In the middle is director Fritz Lang, one of the great heavyweights of European cinema, playing himself and making a movie about one of the great works of the ancient European canon, Homer’s “Odyssey”. That’s just about as high art as you can get in western culture.

Godard highlights the absurdity of business interfering in art and shows that the concerns of those who finance films can be very different from those who make them – one telling scene is when (Palance) complains about not enough nudity in the rushes Lang shows him. And so you have to see the beginning of the movie as a bit of statement on the proclivities of the money men who actually complained that Godard wasn’t using ‘enough’ of Bardot.

The cinematography, the music, the acting – all of it is utterly superlative – it is just a shame that it tells the tale that it does, but if you love film, and are troubled by the ‘business’ of cinema, you miss this at your peril.

* ‘Le Mépris’ plays nationally in cinemas in the UK, check here for venues & dates

The BFI is currently hosting a season of Jean-Luc Godard films at the BFI starting next month until March 16. More info + tickets BFI season here.

Quentin Tarantino BFI

‘Le Mépris’ trailer

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture