Film Review: Le Mepris

Le Mepris (Contempt) is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre cinema from 9 – 11 February

The French New Wave filmmakers hated the conventions of traditional cinema and embraced wholeheartedly the concept of the auteur. At the forefront was Jean-Luc Godard who was keen to show the artifice of cinematic production and the different levels of reality and fiction that it can reflect and inspire.

Le Mepris is no exception, as it begins by showing a camera crew filming two actors as they walk towards the screen. The camera runs along a dolly track and as the actors walk away, the camera focuses on the viewer. In this manner Godard looks beyond the screen to show we are a part of his drama, and that what goes on in front of the camera and behind it is equally intriguing and has a story to tell.

In this case, Godard looks at the pressures of capitalism, culture and personal relationships that go into the process of filmmaking. He shows how screenwriter Paul Javel (Michel Piccoli) is drafted in by Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance), a vulgar and brash American film producer, to save his latest film. In a screening room, along with the film’s director, they watch what they have filmed so far of their new version of Homer’s The Odyssey. Much to Jeremiah’s disgust it is slow, philosophical and thoughtful, indeed he is so angered, it isn’t commercial (and crass – he wants topless mermaids in it) that he kicks a stack of film canisters over.

The film director is played by Fritz Lang, a legendary film director in real life. He played a prominent role in the German Expressionist film movement, his best known being the science fiction epic Metropolis and his crime thriller M. In Hollywood, his films like The Big Heat (1953) brought the techniques of Expressionist cinema to the Film Noir movies of this period. To those of the French New Wave writing in Cahiers du cinema, he was a genius of filmmaking who always left traces of his distinctive authorship in everything he directed.

Paul is inveigled by Jeremiah to undermine the work of the great director, mirroring the decline of the European film industry that was collapsing due to the ever increasing power of American culture and commercialism. Jeremiah also lusts after Paul’s wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). In a earlier opening scene, where Camille lays naked on a bed, she asks her husband which parts of her body he finds beautiful, not surprisingly he says all of her. Where Lang has to prostitute his talent, Paul is being forced to prostitute his wife all because they need the money, and in reality the nude scene with Bardot is to please Godard’s producers and is the equivalent of including topless mermaids.

Le Mepris is Godard’s letter of contempt to his producer’s Carlo Ponti and the American movie mogul Joseph E. Levine; to his actress wife Anna Karina and to Jack Palance whom he had constant arguments with throughout the production.

Using the skills of cinematographer Raoul Coutard and an equally beautiful musical score by Georges Delete, Godard provides us with a sublime, self-reflective look at film and its relationship with reality that breeds contempt in the soul of the artist – or as the French would say, the auteur.

Nigel Watson

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