Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010

Contempt of Hollywood

Jean-Luc Godard's Satire

By David Luhrssen
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The worldwide acclaim of Breathless (1960) transformed film critic Jean-Luc Godard into the leading director of the French new wave and infante terrible of European art house cinema. Fascinated yet repelled by Hollywood, Godard approached the structure of Hollywood narrative movies with an eye for pushing cinema toward new horizons. In his mind, he may have been like a Renaissance painter who just discovered perspective.

His 1963 film Contempt (Le Mepris), released on Blu-ray with copious interviews and documentary material, is an intriguing effort to find a new language for motion pictures even as it parodies the trend of international co-productions (of which it was one) and viciously satirizes the crude rapaciousness of Hollywood moguls. The international cast includes Jack Palance as a pretentious yet infantile American producer bent on transposing Homer’s Odyssey to celluloid; Fritz Lang as himself, the major German director who endures the tantrums to complete the project with integrity; Michel Piccoli as the reluctant screenwriter who’d rather write for the stage; and Brigitte Bardot as his siren-like wife.

Contempt is aware of itself as a film, but not acutely so, and its story of a troubled production and a troubled marriage mirrored the reality on set and in Godard’s life. The psychologically elliptical relationship between the married couple drifts between the erotic and the banal, fraught with moments of not entirely unwarranted jealousy. They don’t communicate well, nor do Lang and his arrogant American producer. The key supporting character is a multi-lingual translator (Georgiana Moll), deftly shifting from English to German and French to Italian. She is Contempt’s happiest character and the link between the others.

Much of the film is set in the place where it was made, Rome’s famed Cinecitta studio, and the dialogue is a feast of references and sly humor for film buffs. The dilapidated, spent façade of Cinecitta may have been less a mirror of its actual appearance (it was the workplace for Fellini and other directors in the ‘60s) than Godards’s gloomy prognosis that the cinema, ultimately, was doomed—a ruin in making not unlike the surviving station’s of Homer’s epic journey.

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