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Contempt (Le Mépris)

Director – Jean-Luc Godard – 1963 – France – Cert. 15 – 103m

*****

Review originally published in What’s On In London when the film was reissued in 1996 – reprinted here to commemorate Godard’s passing on Tuesday, 13th September, 2022

Made back in 1963 in the latter days of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris) anticipates J.G. Ballard’s seminal novel Crash, David Cronenberg’s controversial film of which currently awaits a British distributor. Alongside a director in a film studio (Godard casts the great Fritz Lang, who famously made the silent classic Metropolis at UFA in 1926 before a subsequent career in Hollywood on westerns and crime thrillers), Contempt boasts a central protagonist obsessed by his wife’s sexual peccadilloes, not to mention bleak, domestic, modernist architecture and mythical car crash aftermaths.

The camera lingers lovingly over the latter to George Delerue’s unforgettable and heavily romantic score, but (as apparently in Cronenberg’s Crash) pays little attention to the actual moment of impact.

It’s one of Godard’s best films and possibly his most accessible. Director Lang struggles to film The Odyssey at CineCitta with unsympathetic producer Jeremiah Prokosh (a towering Jack Palance) who waxes lyrical about life and art while seducing Camille (a stunningly contemptuous Brigitte Bardot), wife of hired screenwriter Michel Piccoli.

Far more than the sum of such seemingly disparate parts, Contempt allows Godard free rein of his trademark techniques – repeated dialogue speeches and passages of music that draw attention to repeated images (with the images not necessarily alongside the same soundtrack chunks), a heavily formalist Panavision frame moving in Godard’s unique and heavily stylised manner (on one occasion it pans endlessly back and forth between screenwriter and wife past the same lampshade over and over again).

The Olympian element implies we are watching…well, gods: the performances live up to it. The anticipation of Crash notwithstanding, Contempt stands the test of time supremely well – these days (and in a brand new BFI print) it looks and feels as fresh and compelling as ever.

Trailer (2016 reissue):

Trailer (original):

Review originally published in What’s On In London when the film was reissued in 1996, reprinted here to commemorate Godard’s passing on Tuesday, 13th September, 2022.

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