Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot in Contempt (IMDb)

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.

The film itself is a story about the struggle between commercial imperatives and artistic ones.

Mr. Prokosch, as he is called throughout the film, is the villain. He gets in between husband and wife. He lives for money. He is less a patron of the arts than a new kind of pirate: he pillages art. “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I bring out my checkbook,” he says, echoing the Nazi quip “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my pistol.” Godard is explicit about linking movie producers with a regime that, twenty years earlier, had committed genocide against the Jewish people and destroyed half of Europe. He wasn’t the only artist of his generation to make this connection; the idea that the postwar West was quasi-fascist and that its affluence would lead to totalitarianism had currency among radicals during the sixties. In 1969, Italian poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini released Pigsty, a dark comedy about Nazis hiding in plain sight in postwar Italy. “I’ll leave my factories to the technicians,” a Hitler look-alike says. “In the future, there will be no humanistic culture. There will be no more problems of conscience.” In Contempt, Lang sees Mr. Prokosch as a mortal threat to humanistic culture. “Some years ago—some horrible years ago,” he tells him, “the Nazis used to take out a pistol instead of a checkbook.” The real-life Lang fled Germany rather than collaborate with the Nazis. (In 1933, the top Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels offered to make Lang head of the UFA, the state-controlled German film studio.)

Paul is drawn to Lang. The two stroll through the grounds of a cliffside Italian villa, against a background of brick and earthenware pastels, the soft blue of the sky, and the bright green of the trees. They discuss Homer, the foundation of European high culture, and together evoke the majesty of that culture, which has now expanded to include cinema. Lang’s generation was able to defend this culture against fascism; Paul’s generation will face its own test against the likes of Prokosch. But Paul is not up to the task. He doesn’t know where he stands. He fears he’s selling out; he says he’d rather write for the theater. He effectively pimps his wife out to the American producer—the sin at the heart of the film, one with mysterious motivations. What does Paul stand to gain?


What Prokosch wants—and is helping create—is a world of spectacle and pornography. The only part of Lang’s film that he enjoys is a scene where a naked Penelope treads water in the Mediterranean. The scene is not pornographic, but Prokosch salivates. Most art forms are susceptible to becoming spectacular and pornographic, but the danger is maybe greatest in the art of film, and the great directors have found ways to tame the camera. Godard achieves this in Contempt. He also satirizes those, like Prokosch, who would use the camera to exploit the audience.

Most art forms are susceptible to becoming spectacular and pornographic, but the danger is maybe greatest in the art of film.

Prokosch meets little resistance. Paul waffles and caves. Lang resigns himself to making what appears to be a mediocre film. Prokosch takes Camille on a trip to Rome. The resistance that Contempt does offer to Prokosch and his worldview lies not in the story itself, but in Bardot’s performance and Godard’s approach to it. Money men behind the film wanted nude scenes; the deal they had made with Godard implied that Bardot would be the main attraction. Godard conceded to only one scene of partial nudity, right at the beginning of the movie, with no erotic buildup, and filmed through filters that show Bardot in an “unflattering” (i.e., normal) light. In another scene, Bardot is sunbathing in the nude, but a carefully placed book shields her from the camera.

The philosopher Elaine Scarry writes that, in ancient Greece, “the vulnerability of the perceiver seems equal to, or greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived.” Today, we are sensitive mainly to the dangers posed by the perceiver—to the objectifying gaze, the male gaze, the colonial gaze, etc. This is the gaze that makes pornographers money. It’s how Prokosch looks at people and things. But think about “the vulnerability of the perceiver.” Imagine Prokosch vulnerable.

Godard is not completely innocent of objectifying Bardot. He is well aware that a certain portion of his audience will be instantly charmed by her. But he also knows that desire grows when the object of desire is partially concealed and just beyond reach. Camille’s elusive personality, her inscrutable thoughts, and her literal distance from view (the film has few closeups) make her enticing but also frustrating to the prurient moviegoer. In one scene, Godard films Bardot’s face, in profile, immaculate before a clear background, as she utters one obscenity after another in a flat tone: a dissonance meant to disturb the viewer. In this and other scenes Bardot is able, in flashes, to escape objectification. The viewer is able to see a complete yet unknowable character, at the center of the drama. Bardot also makes the world around her more interesting. A beautiful thing, Elaine Scarry argues, creates a “lateral regard” for the objects around it. Those smitten by Bardot’s performance have their focus turned toward all that surrounds her—a world of high culture not completely dominated by the profit motive.


In 1970, Godard founded a collective named the Dziga Vertov group, dedicated to making movies where politics takes priority over the more traditional themes of Contempt: beauty and tragedy. The project failed; the Dziga Vertov group did not prevent men like Prokosch from taking over the world of art and culture. “There was a time maybe when cinema could have improved society, but that time was missed,” Godard would later say.

Contempt is not a political movie, but it is a subversive one. Its power has less to do with ideas than with the way it trains the viewer’s focus. Seeing it again now reminds us of what’s lacking in Barbie. Like Godard, Gerwig worked within commercial constraints and still managed to make a movie that reflects a personal vision. Her script contains political ideas, and she lampoons the Mattel CEO and board members. But Gerwig never really steps outside Mattel’s shadow, and Mattel probably protects itself from deeper criticism by allowing itself to be gently mocked. The film struggles to free Barbie. It wants to show Barbie as something greater than the commodity she is in real life—something that Godard was actually able to do with Bardot. Contempt defeats Prokosch and what he represents by giving us glimpses of a more beautiful world ruled by neither guns nor checkbooks, an eternal summer in Capri.

Santiago Ramos is a contributing writer for Commonweal.

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