Published July 1, 1997
Le Mépris, or Contempt, based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, was directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1963, but has just been re-released in a newly refurbished print. Michel Piccoli stars as Paul, a Communist playwright being wooed by a dumb American millionaire called Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) to re-write a script for a film he is producing based on the Odyssey. The director is Fritz Lang, who appears as himself. Paul is married to a former typist called Camille (Bridget Bardot), the image of whose naked derrière opens the film. She is asking Paul if he loves every part of her. He does, he says, “totally, tragically.”
Prokosch is meant to represent American crassness rather overawed by the cultural heritage of Europe. “Only yesterday,” he says, there were kings here. . .real human life. . .all kinds of human emotions.” Jerry is actually more interested in the naked mermaids to be included in the picture than he is in the mythology in which he is investing so heavily, but he is also impressed by Lang’s and Paul’s intellectual conversation. “When I hear the word ‘culture,’” he says rather wittily, “I reach for my checkbook.” He carries around a tiny book of sententious moralism which he quotes from on appropriate occasions, and he is given to saying things like “Oh, gods! I like gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel.”
But such absurdity is balanced by a barely disguised ruthlessness, and Camille in particular is impressed in spite of herself. Suddenly, after a quarrel between Paul and Camille at Jerry’s house, Camille finds that she simply can’t stand Paul anymore. She calls him an ass. Eventually she confesses that he disgusts her.Though she claims to want to have nothing to do with Paul anymore, she agrees to go with him to Capri where Jerry and Fritz Lang are shooting “Odysseus” . He can’t decide if she wants him to take the job (and the money—to pay off their apartment) or if her contempt is because he has taken it instead of remaining true to his vocation as a playwright. Yet she is far from being an intellectual herself, and takes no part in the others’ conversation. As they are discussing the Odyssey in Jerry’s villa, she pipes up only to ask: “When do we eat?”
She fears returning to the typing job; she won’t tell Paul why she despises him. She is obviously meant to represent the femme fatale, a stock figure of the 50s and 60s who has rather fallen out of favor since, but her presence here adds a certain piquancy to the men’s discussion of whether or not Odysseus’s Penelope was really faithful. Jerry’s theory is that she was not, but Paul puts forward two other theories: first, that Ulysses went to Troy and then stayed away for another ten years because he wanted to get away from Penelope and, second, that Ulysses wasn’t at all concerned about her faithfulness, didn’t mind all the suitors, but that she grew contemptuous of him and his complacency, so that it was only by killing them that he could prove he really loved her and win her back. Lang only says: “Death is no conclusion.”
The stage seems to be set for Paul to kill Jerry with the pistol we know he is carrying, especially as Jerry becomes more and more outrageous in his attentions to Camille. Paul even sees them kissing, and Camille knows he sees. She seems to delight in tormenting him. She also tells him she can never love him again, and can never forgive him, though she won’t say for what. Yet the ending is not as we expect it to be. Godard’s faithless Penelope is disposed of with rather shocking casualness, and in the end there is only the image of the film being made because, Lang says, he always finishes what he starts. As Paul is about to leave the villa in Capri to return to France, he sees him filming the scene in which Odysseus sees his homeland, Ithaca, for the first time in 20 years. An actor in an old-fashioned, off the shoulder Hollywood jungle suit with his arms upraised stares out to sea, though there is nothing but water to the horizon. “Silence” call the flunkies for filming to begin.
It is a clever and audacious ending, but you have to be more of a Godardian than I am to take that as sufficient compensation for the film’s gratuitous and anti-feminist attack on poor old Penelope and its simplistic Marxist analysis of the relationship between power and culture. Both look very old fashioned now. I won’t say that the view of La Bardot’s rump in her youthful prime is not worth the price of admission, but it does seem rather tame by later standards. What is shocking, really, is that she has so little to do beyond looking decorative and providing the occasion for Godard’s self-pity.