Film Review: Le Mépris


Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 classic Le Mépris deserves to be seen on the big screen. There, it can ravish the senses and connect with the viewer in a way that is utterly lost on a television set. Godard’s film must surely rank as one of the best movie experiences of all time. It is that special. Based on source material derived from Italian author Alberto Moravia, Le Mépris is the story of a martial breakdown and a writer hooking himself creatively to make a few bucks. As a man and wife become estranged from each other, Godard enriches the plot with another battle: between a revered filmmaker (Fritz Lang) and a boorish American producer (played with reptilian gusto by Jack Palance).

Set on studio back-lots, in a Roman apartment and the magical isle of Capri, this beautiful film has a caustic, if equally melancholic, disposition. There is the anguish and sorrow of decaying love and Godard’s jibes about the purse strings of the industry being controlled by idiotic men with zero imagination. Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) has been hired by Palance’s smarmy studio boss to do rewrites on a new Fritz Lang picture. The men are at loggerheads over the direction of the film. It’s an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Jerry thinks it’s too arty and Lang thinks Jerry is plain wrong. Tagging along is Camille (the drop dead gorgeous Brigitte Bardot). Paul and the missus fall out and dissect their emotions in that quintessentially French manner, while Jerry (Palance) takes a fancy to Camille and makes his move.

The milieu of Le Mépris is fascinating and worth exploring. In the late 1950s US producer, Joe Levine, purchased an Italian peplum made at Cinecittà and it proved a hit in the USA, after redubbing and editing work. The Italian genre boom was born. Studios began to snap up US rights to all sorts of pictures, including sword-and-sandal flicks featuring mythic heroes, and many of such films today are considered cult items. The film is self-reflexive in several ways. Godard’s marriage to muse Anna Karina was flagging, he was battling American investors, who demanded a shot of Bardot’s behind, so he gave them one, bathing the French beauty in luxurious golden light, and basically taking the piss out of them for being so lecherous. He was also tasked with making a commercial feature while maintaining its Godard-ness. He succeeded on all fronts. Godard was the artist who tore cinema apart and rebuilt it to suit his own interests and ends.

Le Mépris begins with one of the most stunning counter-cinema gestures ever devised. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard, whose widescreen cinematography is exceptional, is mounted on a camera upon a track in long-shot. A voiceover narrator reads the credits to the audience and the camera tracks actress Giorgia Moll (who appears as Francesca, a translator). At the end of the line, so to speak, the camera turns facing the other camera and Coutard pans down to the viewer’s eye-level, his camera trained directly at us. From that note of electrifying genius on, Godard masterminded one of the greatest films ever made. Le Mépris is accompanied, too, by Georges Delarue’s lush scoring arrangements.

Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn