Art and money are unruly companions. The Artist is pervasively challenged by economic dilemmas: too little, too much, the locus of funding, etc. Resulting from this dynamic are the endless psychological, ethical, socio-political factors that weave their way into an artistic work. Is it even possible (realistic?) to speak of artistic integrity, particularly in a world so cluttered with influential, artistic industries?
Admittedly, these are of course, not new questions and are only related to the interests of this post by means of proximity. It is true, Godard was, at least implicitly, commenting on these types of questions in his 1963 masterpiece, Le mepris (Contempt). However, he seems here more interested in their effects, rather than the questions themselves.
Contempt is well-known for having a fairly large budget for a French New Wave film—at 1 million dollars it was Godard’s most expensive film by a large margin. However, from a certain perspective this can be seen as fairly deceptive, seeing as half of that budget went to Brigitte Bardot and much of the rest went to Jack Palance and Fritz Lang. The fact that the film turned out so well and is still highly regarded is perhaps surprising for, due to the economic context of the film, the film making process was a bit of a nightmare for Godard: he was constantly dealing with Bardot’s massive stardom (either because of her personality or the paparazzi surrounding her), fighting with Jack Palance, due largely to Godard’s loose and vague direction style, and most infamously clashing with the Italian and American producers, Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levine, respectively.
All of this was seemingly fated, for Contempt is the story of screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli) and his wife Camille (Bardot) as they navigate through marital difficulties while in Italy. Heavily influenced by Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy, Paul is hired by an American producer (Jack Palance) to help rewrite Frtiz Lang’s—played by himself—adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey. Godard’s film is perhaps the Reflexive film par excellence. It is absolutely littered with cinematic references, speaks to and with the history of cinema and film criticism—Godard himself plays the cameo role of Lang’s assistant director—and literally depicts the exact difficulties Godard had with the making of the movie itself—i.e. the problems with his producers.
The film is of course about many things, but towards its core it appears to be about seeing/observing. Constantly, the characters are told to look, to see, to interpret—both in real life and in art—nevertheless, people fail to see. As viewers we are forced to interpret the performances and the film, we see Godard play with cinematic language and conventions, and Godard himself is observing and retelling the (hi)story of the cinematic medium. Thus, I could perhaps amend my original statement and offer up that it is about imperceptibility—of humanity (the difficulty of communication and understanding), of existence (the epistemically skeptical world without purpose, meaning, or divine providence), of cinema (the economic factors as blurring and undermining artistic integrity and influence), etc.
Laura Mulvey discusses the multitude of cinematic references throughout the film—the importance of the posters shown, the actors referenced, the actors cast, Godard’s formal references, etc.—and finds the connection between the film’s references to the concept of communication for Contempt:
Just as the spectator struggles to decipher the film’s quotations, so Paul struggles to decipher Camille.… And on this allegorical level, Paul and Camille’s lost love and their mutual inability to understand their emotional history relates to Godard’s sense of loss at the disappearance of the cinema that had formed him so completely.
As one can probably guess, by the time the film is over, the mood is quite dour. What is intriguing however, is that the tragedy of this film is multifaceted: it is the narrative of a couple’s fall from love into contempt, concluding with Camille and Prokosch’s death; it is an existential tragedy of a man forced to live in a world without ‘gods’ with comprehensible principles—be it logical, psychological, or ethical; additionally, intertwined with all of this are the reflexive effects of Godard’s film. The story, the history of the cinema (for Godard) is at stake: Fritz Lang and Prokosch exist as and represent two ‘gods’ of cinema: auteur and the money. And in the end, Lang shoots his film with the intention of showing Odysseus who finally sees his homeland, unfortunately Godard’s camera pulls away from the film-within-a-film and we are shown nothing but the void, the shimmering, mysterious, and impenetrable sea.
Paul French, in conversation with Bersani and Dutoit, explains that:
For the viewers, what is at stake is to see ‘what contempt does’ (32) to the couple and to the film rather than to interpret the film as the disintegration of the couple. Two modes of viewing and of reading the film are put into contest—either we adopt Paul's viewpoint, and seek unsuccessfully for the reasons for Camille's contempt in a past comment or action…Or, if we ask, like Godard, what contempt does to the couple and to the film, we can read contempt as a strategy which elevates passion to something like a tragic impossibility.
It is this ‘tragic impossibility’ which is of significance for a passionate lover of the cinema like Godard. For it represents an aesthetic and existential crisis mourning the ‘failed' promise of the ‘gospel’ of cinema. One should not underestimate the significance of this, for Godard was not simply someone who ‘really liked movies‘. Instead, biographers and critics speak of Godard’s religious-like conversion to cinema. Richard Brody notes, “The story of Jean-Luc Godard’s work is one of a conversion to the secular religion of art and, specifically, to the art of cinema”. To this day, he is known for his philosophical proclamations emphasizing the foundational importance of the medium: “Everything is cinema“ and “At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought“. Brody explains, “It indicates Godard’s consuming submission to cinema and the extent to which he experienced it as a personal epiphany, indeed a transformation.“
As a consequence, if one will allow me to appeal to a (potentially arbitrary) hierarchy favoring devotion—as a servant to a religion or ideology—over and above admiration—as a fan or hobbiest—Godard truly belongs to the former. With this in mind, then, Contempt becomes a document of doubt, of a loss of faith, and of a dissonant, fractured mind wrestling with and reconfiguration of a core belief. Though certainly not connected with religious themes in ways that films of this ilk tend to—a la Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962), or Paul Schrader’s more recent First Reformed (2018)—the point of fracture and departure, the sense of nostalgia, loss, and weight to the film seems quite analogous.
This ‘tragic impossibility‘ that French speaks of, then seems to be Godard’s answer to the effects of the questions of money and art. The answer appears to be the void of the enigmatic and tragic sea. Godard’s youthful faith in the power and influence of cinema is perhaps undermined and destroyed by Prokosch and Levine. Paul will travel back to Rome, alone, a widower. Lang will finish his film shoot. And the viewer is still left with the sea and the word “silence“ in two different languages.
But then again…
Perhaps we too have failed to see…