If Harold Pinter wrote a version of The Big Knife, it might come out something like this.

I’d be kidding you if I said that the movie struck me immediately as a masterpiece.  Because it’s Godard and for me, Godard always comes off as willfully opaque and even boring on first viewing.  It takes some time, in this case 18 hours and a good night’s sleep, for his narrative strategies to reveal themselves.

A french writer (A novelist?  A playwright?  We’re not sure; he describes himself as a playwright but his wife says he’s a “crime novelist”) living in Rome is hired by a boorish (that is, American) producer to “fix” a new film by director Fritz Lang (played by, well, director Fritz Lang).  The film in question is an adaptation of “The Odyssey.”  The director wants to put myth on screen, gods and goddesses and mermaids, heroism and simplicity.  The producer wants to make Ulysses a “modern man,” ie neurotic and perverse, so that the audience will have a way into the story.  The writer is caught between these two impulses.

None of this is immediately apparent.

The writer is married to Birgitte Bardot, the ne plus ultra of “desirable women” in 1963.  He has, in other words, everything a man could want.  He is offered the job by the producer and goes to the studio to watch what there is of the movie the director has made. 

(The film, as shown, appears to be even more opaque and than the one we’re watching.  Only a few of the shots are of actors doing things, the rest are shots of Greek statues posed in fields.  When actors appear, they have no dialogue, only a few poses and motions.  If the director was trying to resurrect the gods, he’s crashed on the shores of film’s limitations — a static shot of a painted statue does not evokes godhood, it evokes tackiness and pretension.)

After the screening, the writer, completely baffled, is invited by the producer to come back to his villa to talk.  The producer offers the writer’s wife a ride in his Alfa Romeo and the writer encourages her to go.  This action, for reasons that remain mysterious to the end of the movie, ends his marriage, although it will take him the rest of the movie to figure that out.

The producer asks the writer and his wife to come to the set in Capris that weekend and they part.  The writer and his wife go home to their flat somewhere in Rome.  We’re all set for an involving drama about the making of a motion picture, but Godard, as Godard will, dashes our expectations and instead gives us a half-hour scene in the couple’s apartment where the writer asks his wife, over and over, in a dozen different ways, if he should go ahead and take this job, and what happened that afternoon that has made her start acting so strange.  Did the producer do something to her in the car?  Did the writer say something to offend her?  What the hell is going on?  Birgitte Bardot is pissed, and one tends to want to know what Birgitte Bardot is pissed about. The couple putter around the flat, take baths and set the table, start twenty different halting, incomplete conversations, take off and put on clothes, hats and wigs, fight and make up and fight again and make up again.  This scene takes up the entire second act of the picture and, like many things in a Godard picture, the purpose of it remains hidden for a while.

The writer and his wife, in any case, go to Capris.  The writer takes walks through the wilderness with the director where they discuss what writers and directors have always discussed: What does the protagonist want?  That is, Why does Ulysses go off to the war to begin with, and why does it take him ten years to get home?  The director believes that that’s just the story, it is what it is, but the writer believes (or is being paid to believe) that Ulysses went to the war to get away from his wife and is taking his sweet time getting home because he’s not sure if he ever wants to see her again.

Aha, so that’s what the 30-minute Pinteresque flat scene was about.  The writer whines and grumbles about how he wants the job and worries about whether his wife still loves him, when secretly he wants to both reject the job and get rid of his wife altogether.  The man who has everything is intent on throwing it all away.

And so in the end (spoiler alert) the protagonist of this movie gets exactly what he wants, although not in the way he expected.  Instead, the gods  that the director wanted to put in his movie enter, as gods often do, offscreen, in the form of , literally, a deus ex machina.  When I was a youngster, a high-school comp teacher warned that the weakest ending imaginable is “And then they were all hit by a truck.”  Godard, surely, must have had that rule in mind when he devised the ending for Contempt, a fitting end for a movie about modern perversity.


2 Responses to “Contempt”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Todd, I’m glad you saw the movie. For what it’s worth, I find the visuals as powerful as the relationships — the shot of Bardot in Palance’s garden when she realizes she’s essentially been pimped out, the first glimpse of Casa Malaparate … it all breaks my heart, somehow. Also, if you’re up for a bit of a (very gratifying) slog, reading Alberto Moravia’s source novel really enhances the movie — the similarities and differences are illuminating, and Moravia’s ending is mind-blowing.


  2. urbaniak says:

    I’ve seen it projected twice and its static lushness really belongs on the big screen. I’m sure it looked excellent in your screening room.

    Great use of music too.