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  • Post last modified:09/28/2023

Contempt: Bardot’s Odyssey


Brigitte Bardot. Photo: Rome Paris Films

When Jean-Luc Godard was done with Contempt, producer Joseph E. Levine felt that something was missing. A lot of money, a huge chunk of the budget, had been spent on getting one of the biggest stars in the world, Brigitte Bardot, and we didn’t get to see her naked. Levine demanded nude scenes, so Godard agreed to write and shoot a sequence that opens the film. In a way, everybody got what they wanted, even if it didn’t end up exactly according to Levine’s wishes. The scene takes place after the film’s married couple (Bardot and Michel Piccolo) have had sex and their talk revolves around her body… but in a way that has Bardot in charge.

The reason for the sequence is pure voyeurism, but Godard puts his own stamp on it. Not only in the style of it, but the scene also shows the couple at peace, before the collapse of the marriage, before the titular contempt. The nudity may be gratuitous, but on the whole we do need this moment.

Working on an adaptation of Homer
Together with his wife Camille (Bardot), French playwright Paul Javal (Piccolo) has made a home in Rome where he has found some success. Now he’s been hired by an American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), to work on a script for director Fritz Lang’s new picture, an adaptation of Homer’s ”Odyssey”. After initial discussions at Cinecittà, Prokosch invites Paul and Camille to his villa, offering her a ride in his sports car but pointing out to Paul that there’s no room for him, so he’d better take a cab. Camille hesitates, but Paul meekly agrees. It takes a while before Paul arrives at the villa and Camille grows suspicious. She gets the feeling that she’s used as bait by Paul to make sure that the deal with Prokosch goes through…

Meticulously choreographed
What follows next is a half-hour long confrontation between the married couple in their apartment back in Rome. It’s one of the most famous sequences in the movie, shot more or less in real time, meticulously choreographed as a sort of marital danse macabre as Bardot and Piccolo move around the apartment, exchanging provocations, awkward truths and terms of endearment. Is all of it compelling? Certainly not… but Godard captures a sense of honesty in his depiction of how a marriage falls apart. An emotional rupture happens, followed by arguments that reveal the sensitive nature of the relationship between two people who love each other, yet also reinforce its demise. This choreography returns in the discussions between Prokosch and Paul whose differing opinions on what sort of film ”Odyssey” is meant to be only grow stronger. What’s worse, Lang has his own philosophical ideas and interpretations that seem unfamiliar to Paul.

Loneliness is simmering underneath.

Contempt is one of the director’s most famous films, close to Alberto Moravia’s original novel, but Godard made, with Moravia’s blessing, significant changes. An important theme is a lack of communication between the characters; they talk to each other, a lot, but they rarely understand what the other one is saying. Loneliness is simmering underneath.

Contempt enters the story when Camille realizes that her love for Paul has changed; it also seeps into discussions on the ”Odyssey” and it is part of the relationship between producer and writer, as it likely also was in real life between Godard and Levine (who was, allegedly, the role model for Prokosch).

It’s an unusually memorable Godard film, with its glamorous views of Bardot and the equally seductive Mediterranean coast. It’s also cleverly layered and sad, its emotions made stronger by Georges Delerue’s achingly beautiful music theme, even if it is overused.

Contempt 1963-France-Italy. 101 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti, Joseph E. Levine. Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Novel: Alberto Moravia (”A Ghost at Noon”). Cinematography: Raoul Cotard. Music: Georges Delerue. Cast: Brigitte Bardot (Camille Javal), Michel Piccolo (Paul Javal), Jack Palance (Jeremy Prokosch), Giorgia Moll, Fritz Lang, Raoul Cotard… Jean-Luc Godard. 

Trivia: Original title: Les mépris. Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti were considered for lead roles. 

Last word: “When I think about it, Contempt seems to me, beyond its psychological study of a woman who despises her husband, the story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity who, like the heroes of Verne and Stevenson, one day reach a mysterious deserted island, whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth that is to say. Whereas the Odyssey of Ulysses was a physical phenomenon, I filmed a spiritual odyssey.” (Godard, Cahiers du Cinéma)

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