‘Contempt’ by Jean-Luc Godard (1963)

By Christopher Matteo Connor   |   July 25, 2023

“Cinema shows us a world that fits our desires.”

French film critic André Bazin’s quote is spoken by Jean-Luc Godard in the opening credits of his film Contempt.A camera crew tracks along towards us, until the camera itself nearly films the frame. It tilts down and turns its lens on us. 

What if the line between desire and contempt is thinner than we think?

Godard’s 1963 film is about the slow breakdown of a marriage between Paul, a screenwriter played by Michel Piccoli, and his wife Camille, the timeless blonde bombshell Brigitte Bardot. Paul has been tasked to revitalize a film adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey helmed by the German film titan Fritz Lang, who effortlessly and charmingly plays himself. But wedged between Paul and Camille is the money hungry, hit seeking, art destroying American producer Jeremy Prokosch. Through a series of unfortunate miscommunications, Paul pushes his wife into the hands of the grimy Jeremy, causing Camille to detest her husband.

Based on the book by Alberto Moravia, Contempt is a breathtaking film, shot on CinemaScope with bright bold colors, with blues and reds featuring prominently, as is often the case with Godard’s ‘60s flicks. The vast beauty of Capri’s coast lies in stark contrast to the marriage tragically being laid to waste.

But the movie is just as much about the failing of a marriage as it is about the breakdown of cinema as an art form. In Godard’s view, there can be no fulfilling relationship between art and commerce. And the American producer is to blame, a loathsome man who writes checks on the backs of his women assistants.

While this may be Godard’s most formal, conventional, and accessible film (at least on the surface), it wouldn’t be a Godard film without some serious self-reflection and metatextuality. He’s clearly commenting on the movie-making business of which he is a part. It’s a very apt time to re-release this French masterpiece, given the parallels between the industry then and now.

Another quote: “Cinema is an invention without a future.” It’s a quote by Louis Lumière, one half of the Lumière brothers, key figures in the invention of the movies. And it’s placed prominently on a wall in a screening room where the American producer has an absolute fit. The film isn’t commercial enough!

It’s a quote that now feels ominously prescient – just as true today as when it was said over one hundred years ago, when cinema was seen as a money-making novelty, not an art form. 

Forget the drawn-out discourse regarding the Marvel-ification of everything and a cinema increasingly dominated by brands. Just consider the current WGA and SAG strikes and the quotes from the conveniently anonymous and comically evil studio executives whose stated strategy is to break writers to hold out until those on strike will have no money left and will face losing their homes. A statement that would have serious implications for thousands of people, including members of our own community here in Santa Barbara and Montecito.

Or think about the actors who are facing the existential threat of AI. For a couple hundred bucks, you can stand in a room, get a full body scan, and the studios will be able to use your likeness from now until eternity, without you ever seeing another dime. Steven Spielberg predicted ten years ago that an implosion of the industry could be on the horizon — sentiments backed by his pal George Lucas — and all it would take is a few huge budget films to bomb, sending the studios in a death spiral. Two titans of the blockbuster are worried, to say the least. As the industry is structured now, with all these existential problems, is there a future for cinema as we know it today? These discussions go beyond art vs. commerce, but they are intertwined.

Back to desire. If cinema reflects our desires, is this what we as viewers want?

In a recent New Yorker article, Jeremy Barber, the agent for Greta Gerwig – the director of the much-anticipated Barbie movie that just hit theaters – commented on the reality that creatives exist in a time where most of the opportunities to flex their chops are with mass-produced products. “If that’s what people will consume, then let’s make it more interesting, more complicated.” 

Sure, that’s great. As an adult, I’d rather watch a more nuanced Barbie movie rather than a cartoon made for my two-year-old niece. But at the heart of that comment is the assumption that this is what the people want to consume, not the fact that it’s all the risk-averse studios are feeding us.

It’s the chicken and the egg. What comes first? Our desire for IP content or the IP content itself? Are the studios ultimately shaping our desire, feeding to us repackaged things that we are already familiar with? Remember this saying: 

Familiarity breeds contempt. Is it a stretch to think that the commodification of our cinematic desires will also breed contempt? The producer in Contempt is not so unlike these anonymous studio heads.

You may be asking, isn’t this supposed to be a review for the Jean-Luc Godard classic? Yes! But would it really be a review for a Godard film if one doesn’t go on rants and tangents and engage critically with the ideas explicit in the film? I’m just trying to make Godard proud (RIP).

Okay, fine! Back to the movie. You should absolutely go see it. It’s compelling, thought-provoking, down-right gorgeous, and one of my favorite films by the French master of cinema. And it’s a perfect follow up to the SBIFF’s French Wave Film Festival. Plus, those reds and blues absolutely pop with the new 4K restoration. While you’re at it, go to Tecolote Book Shop and buy the novel on which it’s based. That too is excellent. A perfect read for anyone going through a breakup. Especially someone in their early-20s. Not speaking from experience or anything…

But in the end, I can’t help but to hear another quote reverberating in my head: 

“You may be right, but when it comes to making movies, dreams aren’t enough.”

Was it a character in the movie or a studio executive who said that? Hm, at this point, I can’t remember…

The 60th Anniversary 4K Restoration of Contempt will play at the Riviera Theatre from July 21 – 27.


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