Godard’s filmmaking has always veered from searing brilliance to disgustingly obtuse whilst still being defiantly deliberate. Never an even handed auteur, Godard weights his films to match his overtly socialist viewpoints. Skewering (stabbing) the middle classes, objectifying and empowering women and general howling into the abyss of mediocrity come as standard whether you enjoy them or not.
Le Mepris gives Godard the chance to snap back at a Hollywood system he never believed in. Hollywood is an easy target, seemingly full of lies, deception and skin deep morality. The demon from Los Angeles here is Jerry Prokesch (Jack Palance) a sneering, gleefully rude showman of a producer attempting to exert his authority over a shoot in Italy with a well known, European director.
Fritz Lang, at a sprightly 73, plays himself as the director Prokesch has hired to film The Odyssey. Lang, a fierce veteran, refuses to bow to Prokesch’s misguided and more commercial tastes. Prokesch hires Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), a playwright and novelist to add some spice to Lang’s more, erm, esoteric and artistically stoic version of Homer’s epic. Paul has a wife, which may, or may not, have been Prokesch’s reason for hiring him. Camille (Bridgitte Bardot, peaking) is a brilliantly bored wife, sultry, stunning and in possession of a visible vulnerability. Camille doesn’t understand the change in her husband and seems unwilling to go with the flow, resisting his gladhanding until it becomes impossible to resist. Le Mepris is Bardot’s high water mark, never better, never more beautiful.
Palance seems to channel the performance of Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success. Jerry Prokesch and J.J. Hunsecker are cut from the same diseased flesh. Ignorant of creativity, except to the point that they know they themselves are incapable of the act, bullying, hugely confident of money’s power and their ability to wield it, Hunsecker and Prokesch are monsters lifted straight from real life. Prokesch is either wilfully ignorant or blissfully unaware, he proudly exclaims that “…you need a German to direct the Odyssey…”, whilst ignoring the plain fact that Fritz Lang is Austrian. He gives a book on Roman sculpture to Javal to help him out with his, strictly Greek, script.
The sequence in Paul and Camille’s Italian apartment is the star, shot in a series of drifting tracking shots that follow a couple having a petty argument with deeper roots almost in real time. The argument, which below the squabbling, concerns Paul taking money for a project he doesn’t believe in which changes the man he is in Camille’s eyes, whilst Paul justifies his choice with claims of financial support for his wife, is symptomatic of the whole. Prokesch versus Lang, Art versus commerce, the three main characters quickly resemble Ulysses, Penelope and Poseiden, the very story Lang is shooting. The scene in which Paul seems to give permission for his wife to fuck Jerry Prokesch is both disturbing and builds a level of empathy with Camille that continues into the final reel.
Le Mepris showcases a relationship disintegrating because outside forces change both parties and eventually (drum roll) familiarity breeds contempt. Godard uses this piece to point the finger at commercialism, his favourite target after the bourgeoisie, claiming it has no place in art. The break down of Paul and Camille’s partnership is mirrored in Godard’s complete distaste for compromise, which was regularly asked of him but rarely given. The opening scene, with a tastefully naked Bardot is one of the few, asked for to help stoke interest in the American market and provided, playfully by the director. At one point Lang tells Javal to “..always finish what you have begun.”. A sentiment echoed by Godard no doubt.
Le Mepris, like Fitzgerald’s novel The Last Tycoon, attempts to explain both mankind’s desire to tell stories and Hollywood’s attempts to destroy that very artform. A true creative spitting in the eye of those with the power is always entertaining, no?