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There's an old joke that's designed to be funny ha-ha for men but is, I suspect, only bitterly funny for most women: "Show me the most beautiful woman in the world, and I'll show you the guy who's tired of fucking her." Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt is many things: a free-verse editorial on the unholy alliance between art and commerce, a meditation on sea and countryside as landscapes of infinite sadness, a whirring phrasebook of intellectual thought that name-checks Dante, Bertolt Brecht, and Dean Martin in Some Came Running.
But it's also the story of the most beautiful woman in the world, and a rueful admission of how the clumsiness of men can amount to a kind of cruelty. Brigitte Bardot plays a young wife whose husband is happy to look at her but can't see her. And while Godard's opening sequence is justly famous for the way it lingers on the hills, valleys, and dimples of Bardot's naked beauty, there's danger in writing that pillowy vision off as mere male erotic fantasy. Because, in Contempt, it's Bardot's gaze that really matters.
Contempt, possibly Godard's most melancholy film and probably his most beautiful, is now 50 years old. The picture has weathered several waves of feminism and thousands of pages of analysis at the hands of film critics, most of them male. But Contempt—which Godard adapted from Alberto Moravia's Il Disprezzo—needs no special pleading from any camp. As romantic tragedies go, Contempt is a near-perfect sphere, an exploration of the cosmos of sadness that can open up between a man and a woman, between a living room, a bedroom, and beyond.
The marriage of Camille (Bardot) and her screenwriter husband, Paul (Michel Piccoli), falls apart on and around the isle of Capri, a landscape of tranquil sea, rolling lawns dotted with pointy trees, and houses that have been sun-faded to dusky tones of gold, orange, and blue: Godard, the quintessential salesman of ambiguous images, gives us a stunning travel brochure for the unraveling honeymoon. (His ace cinematographer and fellow purveyor of broken dreams is Raoul Coutard.) Paul has been approached to commercialize a treatment of The Odyssey that sleazy-slick producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) has deemed too dull. This new Odyssey is being directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself); he drifts through the movie like a portly one-man Greek chorus, a mouthpiece for the kinds of compromises an artist must make when accepting the Man's money.
Not that he's wrong, and a line he offers near the end of the picture sums up the separate-but-related realities of both love and filmmaking: "One must suffer." Contempt, like all of Godard's films, is packed with ideas about the connections between life and art. Some resonate, others hit with the ping of self-consciousness. But there's nothing remote or overthought about the way Godard sees or presents Bardot's Camille; though a filmmaker telling a story about a man and a woman doesn't need to take sides, he's clearly on hers.
The problems between Paul and Camille begin immediately. He allows—no, urges—her to get into a tiny sports car alone with the creep Prokosch; the two will drive to the producer's villa, and Paul will meet her there later. He makes good on his word, but for Camille, he's too late. It doesn't help, probably, that she catches him flirting quite visibly with Prokosch's translator and secretary (Giorgia Moll). Later, at the home the couple have rented while Paul is on assignment, the two move from room to room, away from and toward each other, in the mode of listless molecules. They flirt as well as bicker, but in the way that cuts.
Paul is bewildered and exasperated by his wife's behavior. He repeats all manner of variations on "What'd I do?" though he doesn't seem to care much about the answer. Not that Camille really has one herself, at least, not in the way that can be made clear by the cracked sentences lovers use when they quarrel. But her husband's love for her has turned into something she can't bear; she can read its coldness in his fingertips.
Much has been made, and written, of Godard's color scheme in Contempt, of his repetition of red (in the towel Camille wraps herself in at bath time, in Prokosch's Alfa Romeo, in the movie's stunning opening sequence, rouge-tinted for no good reason and yet impossibly perfect). But the truest measure of Godard's eye is the way he captures what's in Bardot's eyes. When Paul finally catches up with Camille and Prokosch at the villa, she can barely look at him. The two men talk, and she wanders alone in the margins of their world, at one point flipping idly through a big picture book. (It's a book of ancient Roman erotic art that Prokosch wants Paul to use as inspiration in his screenplay.) When she does look at Paul, the suffering in her eyes is like the crash of a wave in miniature, sound and fury. Then she appears to soften; she even smiles, as if she never meant any of it at all.
Godard himself once wrote, "The eye, since it can say everything, then deny everything because it is merely casual, is the key piece in the film actor's game. One only looks what one feels, and what one does not wish to reveal as one's secret." What does Bardot-as-Camille see with those eyes? She sees indifference, and it has taken the shape of her husband—it's nothing so abstract as illusion. This, Godard seems to be saying, is what cinema can show us. If love doesn't kill you, the movies will.
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