Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)


Brigitte Bardot (Camille Javal), Michel Piccoli (Paul Javal), Jack Palance (Jeremy Prokosch), Giorgia Moll (Francesca Vanini), Fritz Lang (Fritz Lang). Screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Rating: 15. Running time: 103 minutes.

Breathless cost Godard nothing. He filmed it on a handheld camera, created the impression of a sophisticated tracking shot by pushing his cinematographer along the pavement in a wheelchair, and had no lighting other than that which was given to him naturally by the sun. Follow-up films were similarly cheap, with the likes of Une Femme Est Une Femme hardly breaking the bank when largely set inside a rundown Parisian apartment. In fact, all of Godard’s early films followed this form: no fancy technology or sets, no high profile actors. Normally he cast his friends as extras, and his wife often played the lead role.

This all held true until Le Mépris, which turned out to be Godard’s first and final big budget film. The majority of the money went towards Bardot’s paycheque, but it’s not just in her divine appearance that the extra cash pays dividends. The sets here are crafted quite exquisitely, all the trademark block primary colours placed perfectly to make a photograph out of every scene, a tradition that later reached its peak in Pierrot, and inspired everyone from Tarantino to Almodóvar to follow suit.

The latter’s latest, Broken Embraces, in particular seems to owe a debt to this film. Both are beautiful, and they are also equally about filmmaking itself, with a painful love story intertwined. In Le Mépris Fritz Lang plays himself, directing an adaptation of the Odyssey whilst at war with the commercially-minded producer who wants to tweak his abstract vision. Michel is hired to rewrite and normalise the script, and Bardot is his stunning, mysterious wife lingering around in the background.

The film, then, is all about Godard himself, and as such it’s a key stamp for the auteur theorists. It’s his way of showing exactly which type of filmmaking he wants to avoid – the kind necessitating outside interference – and it’s conveniently expressed in the one film in which his strings were pulled in the way he despised. He hadn’t exploited Bardot’s body that was so lusted after, and he was forced to add multiple nude shots to please the masses. He agreed, but presumably only because of the irony, and the fact he could shoot these ‘sensuous’ scenes quite mockingly without anything being erotic about them whatsoever. They’re cold, and the implication is clear: leave the director alone, or else you’re acting like an auctioneer stealing a paintbrush to add what you judge to be nice touches on, for instance, Van Gogh’s canvas.

And yet there’s a second level on which Le Mépris is an autobiography. For anyone who has seen Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie, and knows what Godard looks like, it’s hard to miss the intended parallels between their high-tension relationship and Michel and Camille’s. Bardot’s blonde hair is twice swapped for a bowl-black wig to make the analogy explicit, and if her character is representative, Miss Karina must have been an enigma for Godard to say the least. The key moment is when, on the verge of his salary being decided, Michel is invited back to the producer’s house for drinks and inexplicably allows him to escort Camille there alone in his sports car. She feels prostituted, and from that moment on she’s infuriatingly aloof, speaking persistently in code and slowly distancing herself, biding her time before the apparently inevitable disintegration of their marriage.

There’s a genuine aura of tragedy here about the whole situation, at the same time that the film acts as a statement and is designed to be indescribably beautiful. It’s undoubtedly Godard’s most accessible effort, but it’s also, against the odds, surprisingly one of his finest dares. Rarely were his intentions this bold, but also rewardingly decipherable.

One Response to “Le Mépris (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)”

  1. 1 The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970) « jacob williamson | thoughts on film

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