LE MÉPRIS (1963)

  • Director: Jean-Luc Godard
  • Writers: Jean-Luc Godard, based on the novel Il Disprezzo by Alberto Moravia
  • Starring: Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Giorgia Moll, Fritz Lang, and Jean-Luc Godard
  • Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#21), 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#15)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I am comforted that, even when coming to the end of the AFI Top 100 (we have done 98 of them so far, and one of them, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, isn’t eligible for our “20 year rule” until January), there there are lots of movies still to cover on this site from throughout cinematic history, enough to keep us going for years. One of the ways I know this is we are still coming to our first movies from some of the great directors of world cinema. Earlier this week, we had our first Kenji Mizoguchi film, and today our first entry from Jean-Luc Godard, champion of the FrenchNouvelle Vague.” Le Mépris (Contempt, in English, though interestingly the same word is repeatedly translated in the actual subtitles in the movie as “despise”), came three years after Godard hit the international bigtime with À Bout de Souffle (Breathless). While that movie was shot in black-and-white, guerilla-style, mostly on Paris streets, this one is shot in brightly-colored Cinemascope, much of it on the Italian shores of the Mediterranean. There are still jump cuts in this one, though mostly they involve Brigitte Bardot in various stages of undress.

If I have trouble ascribing quite the same level of esteem to Le Mépris as a lot of European critics seem to, well, maybe it’s one of those things where you had to be there. Also I get the sense that I may feel differently than a lot of them about the fact that Bardot’s naked butt seems to be a lot of the reason this movie even exists. Yes, there’s satire of the movie business going on (one of the five of six biggest roles is the great German director Fritz Lang, another great filmmaker we have yet to feature here, playing himself), and I’ll admit that Godard is very interested in the marital dynamics between Bardot and her screenwriter husband (Michel Piccoli, last seen in this space in Belle de Jour), and there is quite a bit of astonishing cinematography in this film, but I think most viewers could be forgiven if what they remember out of this movie is mostly Bardot taking off her clothes. In fact, the movie’s American financiers reportedly made Godard and co. go back for re-shoots specifically to add more nudity, noting, according to the cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, in a later interview on the Criterion Channel, “we we gave you all this money, and we can’t even see her bottom!”

Godard would later claim to have shot the long opening bedroom scene as a “commentary” on Hollywood sex scenes, “a typical mockery of the movie business with tame nudity.” But watching it today I think that, if that were his intent, he ended up thwarted by a few different factors. One is that mainstream movies today, if anything, are less horny than their counterparts from decades ago. You can count the number of good kisses in all the Marvel movies on one hand (some of this has to do with planned worldwide distribution). That is probably a discussion for another time, but I do think it means that the mores of 1960s France, which often shocked Middle America at the time, are, if anything, even more shocking to us today. I also think that, while the nudity might have seemed “tame” had most actresses been involved, Brigitte Bardot is a whole different kettle of fish. If those fish had really, really nice butts. And I mean, I like fish butts, but I could also see them on the internet, so I need more in a movie.

And there is more here, though there is less a plot to this movie than there is the outline for your classic European Art Film. Piccoli plays a French screenwriter brought in to rewrite a movie version of The Odyssey shooting in Italy, which is being directed, somehow, by Fritz Lang (sidebar, I would much rather watch “Fritz Lang’s The Odyssey” than this movie and I’m sad it doesn’t exist). The movie is being produced by the all-timer of the crass American, played with glee by Jack Palance. Palance’s character gets lines like “I like Gods, I can understand exactly how they feel,” and likes to read quotes from a tiny book about great men not making lesser men feel bad with their greatness. He’s the great man, if you weren’t clear. He’s also constantly and shamelessly hitting on all the women involved, not least Bardot, who plays the wife of Piccoli’s character.

Le Mépris is certainly a satire about the movie business in part, but it’s also interested in being a drama about the break-up of the marriage of Piccoli and Bardot’s characters. They spend the middle third or so of the movie with just those two characters in an apartment, as he tries and fails to write the script and then they fight a lot about whether they still love each other. At one point he tells her that “vulgarity doesn’t suit” her, and she responds by listing every French swear word she can think of. He thinks she’s encouraging him to quit the film, but I’m not sure her character has thought that far ahead. This is the same woman who tells someone on the phone that, “Yeah, he’s writing The Odyssey. Yeah, the one with the guy who travels around.”

Bardot was, at the time, one of the biggest stars in the world. The term “sex kitten” was literally invented with her in mind. Her breakthrough role, Et Dieu… Créa la Femme (And God Created Woman) was such a sensation in 1957 America that it reportedly became the highest-grossing movie in the history of Kansas City, Missouri (which honestly says a lot about Kansas City) and is also credited with single-handedly popularizing the bikini swimsuit, which was up until that point mostly a European thing. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were obsessed with her for some time, to the point that Lennon’s first wife reportedly dyed her hair blonde to look more like Bardot. They eventually met, many years later, which Lennon wrote that he found underwhelming because “I was on acid and she was on her way out.” In 1973, she retired permanently from movies in order to concentrate on animal rights activism, and has since become involved to an uncomfortable degree in right-wing French politics.

That is probably a story for another day, as is the full and long career of Jean-Luc Godard, who, like his contemporary Truffaut, started out as a movie critic before deciding to make his own movies. I have seen a handful of his movies, and this was the one I liked the least, perhaps because, as I said, it leans into the European Art Film stereotypes and may in fact have been partially the source of some of them. Yet there are shots in this movie, moments that are effortlessly brilliant from a visual perspective, which would make the whole thing worthwhile even, dare I say it, without Bardot’s butt. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.

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