Godard and Feminism Part II: Contempt (Le Mépris) (1963)
Godard’s Contempt is one part tragedy, two parts self-reflexive commentary, one part comedy, and a multitude of other parts that vary in genre and focus. Yet, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and in its summation, Contempt is a peek into one couple’s struggling relationship in brilliant and earth shattering form. In typical Godard fashion, Contempt is told through a complex, web of narrative that intermingles allegory, poetry and dramatics to string viewers along through a tennis match of uncertainty between Paul, a playwright turned screenwriter, and his bitter wife Camille (Bridgitte Bardot).
Paul is recruited by Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), an American producer with a silver spoon and blunt personality, to rewrite the script for an adaptation of Homer’s timeless classic, The Odyssey. Although Fritz Lang (playing himself) is hired to write and direct the film, Jerry needs Paul to help the film draw in a larger, more promising audience; something Jerry fears Lang’s art-inspired images won’t do. Unsure if he morally agrees with cheapening the story and atmosphere of the script, Paul is roped in by Jerry’s promises of a large paycheck to keep his wife happy. However, what Paul thinks he’s doing for the good of he and Camille’s relationship ultimately turns Camille away, and slowly but surely his actions cause her to despise him.
Contempt is an allusion to The Odyssey and its theme of the fight for love. Godard also uses Contempt as a vehicle to drive his ever present voice of criticism on the film making process. Jack Palance gives a magnificent portrayal of a devilish, arrogant producer who prefers to drive a ten foot walking distance, use his assistant’s back as a table, and her buttocks to release his anger. Jerry embodies a disdain that Godard, and possibly Lang himself, felt for producers. Thus, creating conflict as the making of The Odyssey becomes a fight against the gods; the producers and physical providers of a film verses the artistic integrity of the vision being relayed by its director as Contempt’s three lead characters alludes to those in The Odyssey.
But, of all the characters we meet throughout Contempt, the most interesting and complex is Paul’s wife, Camille. Teetering between moments of intense emotional and irrational mind games, Camille’s dynamics spawn from her hopes, desires, and fears. When placed in a position of stress after an encounter with Jerry, Godard shows us Camille at her worst with her defense mechanisms in tow giving her the most depth of any character in the film. After continuously being let down by Paul, Camille retorts by relentlessly torturing him in ways that only a woman could. She toys with his emotions threatening their future while questioning her feelings towards him. She shuts down multiple times either by lying to assure him nothing’s wrong or changing the subject with rapid speed, a readily accessible mechanism for some. Contempt ultimately follows the two characters as they run circles around each other with Paul struggling to figure out why Camille’s feelings for him have changed, and Camille wanting Paul to confront where his devotion and fight stands, with his work or his love.
The beautiful and popular Brigitte Bardot, who stars as the befuddled vixen, is introduced lying naked on a bed after having sex with Paul. She asks him in a childlike interrogation what he thinks about the various parts of her body: “my toes, my knees, my thighs, my breasts.” Paul assures her each body part has not escaped his devotion. During this sequence, Godard toys with the notion of sexual exploitation by gliding the camera over her body, changing the tint, stopping on her bare buttocks and sensually exposing the curves of Bardot’s body. But, while the camera attempts to trap her sexuality it does not define who this character is. Instead Camille proves herself to be relentless once she feels that Paul doesn’t see her as an equal. Through phenomenal use of off-kilter framing Godard wonders the couple’s apartment alongside them, as Camille gloomily sulks and threaten their relationship with half serious discussions of not loving him anymore.
She announces she will from now on sleep on the couch. She taunts Paul, even verbally assaulting him. When things get rough she takes a slap to the face playing the part of a helpless victim by telling him he scares her. However, soon after her true ferocity is shown and we see how she in turns man handles Paul kicking him for lying to her mother and fighting back when he shouts at her before cooly and calmly walking out the door without him. Camille’s transformation after a ride with Jerry alludes to behaviors found in sexually abused women. She attempts to change her look, donning a black wig to distance herself from the situation. Camille carries her burden with deep contempt at Paul for not acting as her equal. The story’s continuation reveals how the couple’s relationship parallels that of Odysseus and Penelope.
Godard ends his film on a bitter, tragic note. One that when I initially saw it in a film class in college, I remember the class nearly erupt in applause that certain characters “got what they deserved in the end.” I never understood why they reacted that way until recently, and I feel the joy was because Camille stepped outside of her role as a docile wife. She spends much of the film ignoring or spitting anger in Paul’s direction. She’s a woman who felt she deserved better. She felt betrayed by the one man who was supposed to love her the most. Her feelings turned into contempt leading to a fleeting of emotion. It’s a telling tale when a woman struggles to change an unhappy situation only to have fate punish her for it in the end. But as Godard’s prologue of the film states: “Film substitutes a world that conforms to our desires. [And] This a story of that world.”