Tuesday, October 9, 2007


The most recent film I've seen at WHC's film series is Jean-Luc Godard's Mépris; Contempt (1963). In French, "misunderstanding" is méprise, and that seems fitting, since I have to admit that I misread the film when I first saw it. Or let's be clearer: I never saw the film before, I only saw a videotape of it. I think I have to accept the fact that any movie I've only seen on tape doesn't count as "seen." Or to quote the old joke from Bill Murray on SNL: "I saw it on a small screen in Canada and didn't get the full effect."

So am I saying that my mépris for Godard was actuellement une méprise? Peut-être. Fact is, the film was vastly more entertaining than I remembered it. I recalled it as soporific, as an exercise in which Godard registers his contempt for the typical Hollywood fable of jealousy and abandonment by creating a lethargic movie of failed scenes, dabbling at times in his usual self-conscious "art talk" if only to underscore the characters' vapidity. Let's follow this plotless meander for plus two hours. Let's gaze at the Mediterranean -- c'est magnifique. Let's gaze at Brigitte Bardot nude on a bed -- elle est très belle. Let's indicate our scorn for "sex symbols" by having said symbol anatomize her body parts for her lover: "what do you think of my knees? can you see my butt?" Let's indicate our scorn for American film producers by having Jack Palance assail the role with the charm of a block of granite in a suit. Let's indicate our scorn for big concept films by having the unflappably cultured Fritz Lang -- he only grins when Bardot mentions Rancho Notorious, saying "I prefer M." -- play himself, reduced to talking over Homer with the likes of Palance's fatuous producer, who coughs up with a straight face lines like: "I was re-writing the Odyssey last night, and it occurred to me..."

It would be easy to keep up a patter of contempt. Contempt for its contempt: for such contempt -- if it was the whole point -- would be banal. Not worth the time. So what does Godard give us to offset that simplistic "send-up" film? Art? Yes, oddly enough. Shots that are composed not only in terms of figures and camera placement, but in terms of colors. The use of color in the film is nothing short of brilliant. It's a film that, it could be said, loves cinema so much that it can't help giving us perfectly crafted images even if the story is less than gripping. But the story is also extremely well-paced, once one surrenders to the hypnotic sense of "looking" that Godard's direction achieves. Then there's that oddly swelling melodramatic music that seems to appear at timed intervals, independent of the action. And the fact that every time Palance opens his mouth I had to laugh. Not only the lines, but the delivery is priceless -- the voice of some phony he-man from any number of sword and sandal epics that MST3K mocked mercilessly. And the fact that the sword and sandal epic being made, ostensibly, by Lang would suggest a kind of circle of hell for the German director who mentions Hitler's use of film -- likening it to Hollywood -- only to be told by Palance: this is 1963, not 1933. Elsewhere, when summoned to a conference with Palance, Lang shrugs his shoulders with world-weary charm and says to Michel Piccoli (the playwright hired to re-write the script and having pangs of conscience about the crass association): "man must suffer."

In short, the film is pointless as only a film of the early '60s can be: because the times, they were a-changin' and the "new spirit" inhabiting film-making gave directors like Godard leave to try anything, to shower the proceedings with contempt while upholding an aesthetic -- visual pleasure -- all-encompassing in its grasp of what movies are for. The film actually manages to be a character study of Piccoli's ambivalent writer that -- in its misogyny -- pretty much dramatizes the ambivalence at the heart of the film's aesthetic: what can you do with beauty other than possess it, use it -- and lose it? Is it possible to let it be?

Also, it seemed to me there are some strong indications that David Lynch had this film in mind when making Mulholland Drive -- silencio!

My phone was ringing and it would not stop
It was President Kennedy calling me up.
He said, "My friend Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?"
I said, "My friend John, Brigitte Bardot,
Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren -- country'll grow."

--Bob Dylan, "I Shall Be Free" (1963)

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