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Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963)

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Has there ever been a more beautiful, more tragic film than Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963)? If so, I can’t think of one offhand. It’s also one of the most trenchant examinations of a relationship in collapse, as well as offering a behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of filmmaking, featuring no less a personage than director Fritz Lang as himself, trying to make an intelligent film adaptation of The Odyssey, despite the continual interference of his distinctly unpleasant producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance).

Seeking a more commercial approach to the material, Prokosch hires screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to do a rewrite. Accepting the assignment, Paul loses the affection of his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), who realizes that he is selling out, simply to make cash on a project which has no artistic integrity. As for his part, Lang refuses to take sides on any of this, and watches as the film, and the marriage, both slide toward the abyss. He’s seen it all before. All of this is set to a compelling, ravishingly romantic musical score by composer Georges Delerue.

Some have critiqued the film recently for its basic plot premise, calling the idea of “selling out” antiquated — after all, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do these days, sell out to the highest bidder? Maybe not, suggests Godard, who even today, continues to make deeply personal and idiosyncratic films designed only to satisfy his own needs and desires, and still finds an audience for them, nonetheless — perhaps “selling out” is just as undesirable as it always has been, a recipe for artistic and personal bankruptcy.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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