A filmmaker with indie cred and some mainstream success is invited to make a big-budget picture. The filmmaker is given almost complete creative freedom, but the producers worry that the script is too weird or political to attract a mass audience. They complain about scenes that don’t advance the story and strange allusions in the dialogue. Everyone places their box-office hopes on the blonde A-list actress who will play the lead. In this contest between art and commerce, only the final product will reveal which side has the upper hand. I am referring not to Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, but to the late Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt.
A 4K restoration, a book launched at the Cannes Film Festival, and a New York revival all marked the sixtieth anniversary of Contempt, one of Godard’s greatest films. A combination of European high culture and American studio know-how, Contempt was created thanks to the initiative of Carlo Ponti, an Italian producer known for connecting European directors to Hollywood. The project got a financial boost from Joseph E. Levine, the prolific American financier who had already distributed Godzilla and The Graduate. Most of the producers’ investment went to paying the French star who they hoped would attract a mass audience: Brigitte Bardot.
Godard’s first movie, Breathless (1959), was a comic take on film noir, its hero a callous gangster who lives beyond good and evil. Godard followed that early success with a musical, a movie about the Algerian War (censored by the French state), and a story about an actress turned prostitute. This filmography might suggest that Godard was a lofty-minded artist who disdained commercial films, but Godard revered classic Hollywood directors like Howard Hawks and Nicholas Ray. He also embraced Hollywood themes and techniques. At a certain point in the making of Contempt, he tried to sign Frank Sinatra for one of the lead roles. Where Godard differed from Hollywood producers was in the purpose of his films. His purpose was to change the world; entertainment and money were secondary in importance. Contempt is Godard’s greatest attempt to bring order to the world of cinema, to tame its commercial side and create a beautiful film. The film itself is a story about the struggle between commercial imperatives and artistic ones.
Contempt is lush and melodramatic, but it is also self-referential and ironic. Half of the film takes place in Capri, the famous Italian resort. The film quotes highbrow figures like Bertolt Brecht, Friedrich Hölderlin, and the great German director Fritz Lang, who plays himself in the film. Instead of scrolling down the screen, the opening credits are read aloud by a narrator. As we hear them, we also see a camera move along the groove of a tracking shot; eventually it stops and turns toward the viewer—a Brecht-inspired trick for making the audience self-conscious.
Based on a novel by the Italian writer Alberto Moravia, Contempt is the story of Paul, a crime novelist played by Michel Piccoli, and his wife Camille, played by Bardot. Paul is hired to doctor the screenplay of a movie based on Homer’s Odyssey, which Lang has been directing. Jack Palance plays Jeremy Prokosch, a grubby American producer, who shouts at Lang, exploits his assistant, and makes passes at Camille right in front of her husband.