I like long, slow movies made in decades past by foreign directors. I’ll watch anything by Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Bergman, Buñuel, Lang, Resnais, Herzog, Truffaut, etc. I like movies in which the juxtaposition of images and how those images are framed tell the story, where dialogue is merely the ornamentation on top. I like movies that give me something to think about when they’re over, and if I’m thinking both about the meaning of the movie and the cinematic technique used to impart it, better still. I like the kind of movies other directors love and are inspired by, that too-smart critics love to wax rhapsodic about. I love the directors widely considered to be the great masters of the artform.
But I can’t stand Jean-Luc Godard.
Which is odd, because his movies fit the above description to a tee. I’ve long considered Weekend (’67) to be the single most boring movie ever made. I remember suffering through a screening, and finally thinking to myself, “Well, thank the good lord above it’s almost over. I’ve been watching it for close to an hour and a half,” before looking at my watch to see that only twenty minutes had passed.
Not that you couldn’t write a book on all of the deep social and cinematic commentary in Weekend. I have no doubt people have. Like zombies feasting on brains, so too do intellectuals feast on Godard. And if your interest is specifically the craft of filmmaking, there’s no shortage of bloody meat to gorge yourself on.
The problem, then, with Godard’s movies is not that they don’t provide intellectual stimulation, and not they don’t provide other filmmakers with awe and inspiration, it’s that they’re unbearable to sit through. The part where Godard fails is the part where you actually have to watch his movies before you can unpack what he’s saying or steal his methods of saying it.
Or so it goes for me. Your mileage, as internet denizens abbreviate, may vary.
Thing is, because I’d been so scarred by watching Godard in my younger days (and here I will mention having then liked one Godard movie, his first, Breathless, the watchability of which I blame on screenwriter Francois Truffaut), I began to worry I’d been too youthfully hasty in my assessment. And so, wanting to cut the poor guy some slack (I imagine he’s spending his sunset years deeply concerned with my opinion of his work), I decided to give him another chance and check out a theatrical screening of what many consider to be his masterpiece, Contempt (’63).
I’d read that Contempt is an exciting, unusually commercial behind-the-scenes story of a screenwriter brought onto a troubled production by a megalomaniacal, playboy producer, a production based on Homer’s The Odyssey, and directed by Fritz Lang—playing himself. A movie about movies! Never grows old. Would it be as spectacular and original as Fellini’s 8 ½? As scathing and biting as Altman’s The Player? As cynical and noirish as Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard? As funny and romantic as Donen & Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain?
It’s none of that—and less!
Here’s the thing about Contempt: I hated it. For all the reasons above. It’s dreary, boring, pretentious, unemotional, and despite being Godard’s much-lauded first foray into CinemaScope and color, it manages the neat feat of looking simultaneously garish and bland.
Turns out it’s not at all about making a movie. The making of a movie is the setting. The story, what little there is, concerns writer Paul (Michel Piccoli) and his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), and their failing marriage. Although it’s not a failing marriage until Paul takes the job. A job writing a movie, i.e. hackwork, the kind of work any sane woman would leave a man over. If you look closely here, you can see Godard commenting on his perceived perception of the movie business. Paul takes the job, then allows Camille to ride in the car of American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance, wishing he was in another movie). Which signifes his willingness to allow Prokosch to flirt with her. Which pisses her off even more. In an instant, she no longer loves him. Ah, women!
Cut to a scene in their apartment where they argue for half an hour. I mean the scene is actually half an hour long. This scene is considered brilliant by the cineratti (literate cinema lovers? Did I just make that word up?). Technically, sure, it’s very smart indeed. Godard plays with the confines of the space, with the characters’ clothes and hair, with allusions to past movies, with expectations of when such a scene should end (now! please!). If you were going to write a paper on this scene, you’d have plenty of material. If you wanted to film your own scene of a couple arguing, you could do worse than to study it minutely. But watching it? In the context of a movie? I’d rather have my brain replaced by a live badger than sit through that again. It’s boring and unbelieveable. It feels like actors playing emotions without being connected to any larger reality. They do what they’re supposed to do in the scene, and they do it well, but it’s all so cold and lifeless.
Prior to this we get to see Fritz Lang screen parts of the movie-within-a-movie for Paul and Prokosch. Mostly all it consists of are shots of Greek statues against a flat blue sky. With makeup on. The statues, that is. Then, later, a few shots of actors dressed in Greek togas shooting arrows at one another. Prokosch isn’t happy. He hurls reels of film in anger! (Get it? They’re shaped like discusses! Lang notes this, just in case you miss it).
So, okay. Not a real movie Lang is screening. Rather, it’s a metaphor for an “art film”—statues standing there, get it?—with the incongruous addition of a naked swimming chick to make the producer happy. Indeed, Prokosch laughs insanely when he sees her. He loves this bit!
Following the half hour argument, we’re off to the Italian coast where the movie is shooting, and there’s more arguing and whatnot, and a lot of talk about how Paul and Camille’s particular marital troubles as herein portrayed mirror the plot of The Odyssey, and isn’t that interesting? Write me five pages, single-spaced, on the topic and have it on my desk by 8 a.m.
Paul eventually grows a pair and says he refuses to sell out by writing movies, hoping by doing so Camille will return to him. No go. She takes off with Prokosch in his hot red sportscar, and away they race. Don’t worry, they’ll die horribly in about five minutes. Something to do with The Odyssey, I think.
The movie opens, by the way, with a long conversation between Paul and Camille in bed. She lies on her stomach, naked, and the camera lingers longingly on her legs and ass. Apparently Godard’s producers insisted on having Bardot naked in the movie, so he tacked this scene on at the start of the movie. Just like in Lang’s movie-within-the movie! It’s art imitating life imitating art! Genius! Write me another paper IMMEDIATELY on this topic.
Godard to me represents the absolute worst in “art” cinema. He makes movies with all of their inherent joy neatly excised. Contempt is little more than a dry, dull commentary on itself. Compare this lifeless husk to 8 ½ (’64), Fellini’s movie about making a movie, which movie is itself, in its entirety, its own movie-within-a-movie. Fellini’s movie is no less artistic, no less a commentary on the film industry and how it functions (rather it’s a far more arty, insightful commentary), yet it’s bursting with everything that makes movies enjoyable: it’s witty, smart, sexy, fun, lovingly shot and acted and edited.
What does Godard have contempt for? Why the title? His contempt is for cinema itself. Lang is the stand-in for Godard in Contempt. Lang voices Godard’s opinions, such as ‘Scope being fit only for filming snakes and funerals. Ha ha. Yet here he is making a widescreen film in Technicolor. Here he is including a nude scene of Bardot. But he’s no sell-out; he’s doing these things ironically. He’s doing them contemptuously. You get your nude scene in widescreen color, but for the rest of the running time he makes you stare at statues.
I know, my movie snob card will be revoked for writing this. But so it goes. If it means I never have to watch another Godard movie, it’ll all have been worth it.