Wednesday 27 August 2008

Contempt (1963)

A film within a film within a film, ad infinitum, this is a fascinating piece of work by French New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard, which is largely autobiographical. The film is ostensibly about another film, a modern version of the Odyssey, which is in turmoil. It's being made in Italy with American money and a German director and it would seem that the cultures clash, most obviously between the American producer Jeremy Prokosch, played by Jack Palance, and the German director Fritz Lang, played by, well, Fritz Lang.

The biggest problem is that while Prokosch and Lang agree on what the script says, they disagree on how it appears on the screen. It's the classic cinematic conflict: films are made by companies to make money but they're also made by people to make art. Lang explains that what's on the screen is naturally different from what's on the pages of the script, because one is words and the other is pictures and they're inherently different. Lang's artistic vision doesn't appeal to Prokosch, who despises art films and looks down on his public, so he hires a new writer, Paul Javal, to spice it all up and make it more commercial and here's where the real story kicks in.

Javal, played by French actor Michel Piccoli, is really Godard, just as Godard is also the director of this film within a film. Contempt was apparently Godard's first and last time making a film that he couldn't control the way he was used to. His early films like Breathless, The Little Soldier or The Riflemen were notable for their guerrilla filmmaking style, made independently on the streets with relatively or entirely unknown actors. This was his first big budget production, during which he struggled to keep his artistic integrity in the face of other people with equal or even larger say in the proceedings. To confuse matters even more, what we see today isn't quite what Godard intended. His producers wanted it spiced up with nudity and commercialism.

Like Godard, Paul Javal also has a beautiful wife. Godard's was Danish born actress Anna Karina who he had married in 1960 and by 1963 had already directed twice; Javal's is Camille Javal, played by no less a sex symbol than Brigitte Bardot and she provides that nudity in scenes filmed after Godard's original cut was complete. After Paul's initial meeting with Prokosch and Lang, he introduces them to his wife and lets her ride with Prokosch to his villa, while he himself takes a taxi. This act resonates and causes serious trauma to their relationship, as depicted in the long scene at the heart of the movie in their apartment.

There are so many layers here, it's hard to keep up with what Godard was trying to do. Some are obvious, but some are more subtle. Godard can be seen in Paul Javal, Fritz Lang, in Godard himself as Lang's assistant director, and in Ulysses; just as Karina is Camille and Penelope. I presume Prokosch is Carlo Ponti, but I don't know enough about him to say for sure. Maybe he's also Homer. All these stories intertwine, presumably suggesting that they never really change. What was true in ancient Greek times remains true today, if only we understand the stories properly.

Most fascinating for me was the character of Francesca Vanini, Prokosch's assistant. While this film was made in English, she still acts as interpreter. Whatever Prokosch says, she immediately rewords it for his audience, and whatever they say in return, she rewords again for him. I'm sure this works on a number of levels too: not least the producer being deliberately abstracted from reality. However like the film itself, I may understand a lot about Francesca but I'm just as sure I don't understand everything, and also like the film itself, she's fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying.

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