Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Who could have contempt for Contempt?

Brigitte Bardot acts up a storm in Contempt.

I'm late getting to the re-issue of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt; I missed it when it briefly passed through town, and had to settle for the new Criterion DVD, which recently showed up on my doorstep via Netflix.

But now how I wish I'd seen it on the "big screen" (or at least the Brattle's screen)! For Contempt truly is a visual wonder - shot brilliantly in Cinemascope by Raoul Coutard, Godard's longtime collaborator, it reminds one of the ravishing glory that the widescreen was capable of. Coutard works miracle after miracle in the sun-baked expanses of a mysteriously depopulated Rome and Capri; imagine Antonioni in a sun-kissed palette of pastels and burning primaries, and you have something of the erotic charge of Contempt. All that and Brigitte Bardot's golden rump, too (above), contemplated often and at length - go on and tell me that's not Art!

Well, maybe it's not, but maybe it is - Contempt flips back and forth on that question, as it does on every question it considers, and it does nothing but consider everything, including itself. Indeed, in its cinephilic navel-gazing, Contempt seems to have popped out of some socio-historical time capsule; while contemporaneous works like, say, The Birds or Lawrence of Arabia seem somehow "timeless" to us now, Contempt feels hilariously of its period (1963, the era of 81/2 and L'Eclisse) the same way something like What's Up, Tiger Lily? does, because it's so drunk on its own arty assumptions.

To be fair, Godard's work always kicks up its heels with a wonderful adolescent verve (I hate to keep mentioning Antonioni, but Contempt is a bit like La Notte without the ennui). But the affectionate humor with which I viewed the movie was also cut with poignance - I can remember when I, too, thought cinema was a kind of operatic, world-cultural apotheosis funded by Carlo Ponti, and that Jean-Luc Godard could smash together Dean Martin, the Odyssey, and existentialism and somehow remake the world.

Of course now, it all looks ridiculous, and every time I saw Michel Piccoli wander through in his Dean Martin hat, like some costumed kid on his way to a Harry Potter party, I wanted to LOL. Godard's immature obsession with pop tropes both makes him entertaining and yet somehow undoes him over the long haul. Yes, yes, I know, they still take this kind of thing seriously in film school, but it seems, alas, that the world has moved on, and "cinema" is over, while the other fine arts have managed to struggle on - some limping, it's true, but all still definitely alive. And the great world masters with deeper roots in those other, older forms, like Bergman and Fellini (theatre) and, yes, Antonioni (literature) don't look quite as dated as Godard (even if, oddly, he's often livelier than they are). Nor have they been so sullied by fanboy critique (much less by homages from torture-porn auteurs like Quentin Tarantino, who named his production company "Band of Outsiders").

Still, maybe I shouldn't hold the fanboys against their idol (at left) - so Tarantino perverted his message, that's not Godard's fault. And at any rate, there's plenty for grown-ups to savor in Contempt. Brigitte Bardot, whose bruised, carnal pout works beautifully as an actor's choice here, manages an impressive poise as the love object who's also, apparently, supposed to represent not only Art but the "irreducibly real." (I know, I know, but go with it, okay? It's Godard!) Piccoli is inevitably overshadowed by Brigitte and her bum, but likewise underplays cleverly and manages to hold his own (still, you end up longing for Belmondo). Jack Palance chews the screen as the crass Hollywood shark who's producing the movie of the Odyssey at the film's center (he's prone to philosophical pronouncements from a Mao-like little red book, that is when he's not shouting, "I like gods! I know how they feel!"). The stunt-casting of Fritz Lang as the project's director doesn't quite pay off as much as you'd like, but Lang has at least one great moment when he gets back in the sullied saddle for yet another shot, muttering "You should always finish what you've started."

The plot has to do with screenwriter Piccoli (and, of course, Godard) selling out to Palance and his filthy lucre - to whom (and which) Piccoli/Godard also (somewhat) pimps out his wife, Bardot (Godard briefly dresses Bardot in a black wig, like his own estranged wife of the time, just so his little band of insiders can get all the parallels). Sorry for all those parentheses, but whenever I start writing about Godard, I suddenly itch to include a lot of them, along with hyphens and back slashes, and phrases like "the irreducibly real;" the director's crazy hermeneutics are a bit contagious. At any rate, the tiny betrayal in the center of Contempt leads to Bardot falling completely and totally out of love with Piccoli, which of course, given the glory of her aforementioned bum, is tragic in a way Lear and Hamlet could never have dreamed.

This leads to the inevitable Godardian sexual micro-drama back in the hotel/apartment (as always precisely rendered in its natural, aimless detail), as well a whole lot more criss-crossing metaphorical exegesis, some gorgeously moderne architecture, and the sun-splashed sea off Capri. But don't worry, it's all fun, not to mention always self-aware - in subverting his own Hollywood budget, Godard is clearly biting the hand of his own producers - and even self-mocking (whenever Piccoli begins to mis-interpet the Odyssey as his own psychodrama, we can hear Godard openly, and honestly, laughing at himself). The only wrong turn happens at the very, very end, in which Godard allows himself the revenge he refuses his factotum; but this is redeemed by a truly unforgettable closing shot of the Mediterranean which does, indeed, fuse both Ulysses's gaze and the camera's - and which closes with the command "Silencio!" (David Lynch fans, take note). At which point one does feel, before that glittering stretch of ocean, with its imaginary Ithaca somewhere in the distance, that there's really nothing more to say.

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