“Le Mepris”/”Contempt” (1963)

Today I caught Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1931) and John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), both fine, wonderful and fun films. However, I also decided to watch Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (1963) for the first time on a TV bigger than 17″ and that certainly is not a film to take lightly.

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
StudioCanal Image/Compagnia Cinematografica Champion S.p.a.
France/Italy, 104 minutes
Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang, Jack Palance

Films about film making are some of my favorites and Le Mépris is definitely one of the most interesting. It was Godard’s attempt at commercial film making, but its pretty obvious from the spoken credits to the nearly forty minutes in one setting that making films for a wide audience is not Godard’s way of doing things. Compared to the other Godard films released by Criterion I have had the pleasure of seeing (À bout de souffle, Vivre sa vie, Une femme est une femme and Pierrot le fou, along with Le Mépris make up my Godard resume) this one is completely different. Fun is certainly one thing that this film could ever be described as (I guess you couldn’t call Vivre sa vie fun either, but at least there are scenes of happiness). And when the film is called ‘Contempt’, you should know that there’s practically no chance for a happy ending.

The one thing that can be said about this film, even if you hate what is going on, is that the visuals are simply stunning. What Raoul Coutard does with CinemaScope (which is “…only good for snakes and funerals”) and Technicolor is amazing. While I think he bested himself in Pierrot le fou, I still find shots like the one of Piccoli sitting on the steps at one side of the screen and Bardot swimming on the other and the images of the Greek statues mesmerizing.

Godard’s story is conflicting I think. There is not a single character the audience could like. The audience feels contempt for the characters, who all feel contempt for each other. you simply cannot appreciate Paul Javal who thinks his wife, Camille, is falling for Prokosch (Palance) and not only does he do nothing about it, but he seems to encourage it! Camille, on the other hand, is also unsympathetic because she refuses to open up to Paul. Whenever either of them leave the door open to solve their problems, they never walk through it. This makes the apartment scene almost unbearable. If you could not sit through the half-an-hour apartment sequence in À bout de souffle, the sequence in Le Mépris, while definitely more interesting visually, would be even more difficult. In fact, when I see the film, the only person I can feel any remorse for is Fritz Lang, whose vision is stolen from him by Prokosch and handed to Javal, who has no vision and only takes the job for money.

an example of one of Coutard's fantastic compositions in the film

The edition of Le Mépris that I own is the Criterion from 2002. Criterion had announced in 2009 that they would be releasing a BluRay, but StudioCanal stopped them in their tracks, claiming back full rights to the film to release their own BluRay. My viewing of the film today was the first time I used by BD player and the 42″ widescreen TV. To me, the DVD shows its age and didn’t really upscale all that well, but compared to the DVDBeaver screen shots of the BD, there really isn’t much of a visible difference. That’s unfortunate because I’m sure Criterion could have done a much better job.

The extra features on the 2-disc Criterion lean heavily on contemporary archival material, leaving just an excellent scholar commentary to give analysis. The Dinosaur and The Baby is included on the StudioCanal disc, although you won’t find any of the other extras there.

The Verdict: I would say that most people know whether they like Godard’s films or not. If you don’t, you aren’t going to like Le Mépris just because it has Brigitte Bardot in it. If you do enjoy Godard, I hope you’ve already seen it. If you’re a member of that third category that has never seen a Godard, Le Mépris is probably not the best place to start. I think any fan of cinema would tell you that À bout de souffle is a good starting point. Then, if you enjoy that, Le Mépris is a great second place to go.

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