Contempt (1963), or On The Rocks

18 05 2009

Jean-Luc Godard practically started the French New Wave with his bare hands in 1960 with his amazing debut, Breathless. Today’s film, a dazzling drama called Contempt, paved new ground for the movement that he himself began not even three years previously. Its power lies in the extraordinary ability of a director in his prime, and it is truly wonderful.

It all begins when a producer decides to create a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. He hires famed director Fritz Lang (playing himself!!!) to direct the picture, but it soon becomes a power play between the two, with the director wanting a more artistic version of the material and the producer wants a more commercial work. This struggle runs concordant with the screenwriter’s crumbling relationship with his beautiful wife, who grows aloof from him during their time shooting the picture and spending time with the producer. Will the film go according to Lang’s vision? Will the producer win out in the end? And will he get the screenwriter’s voluptuous wife while he’s at it?

Despite it being a heavy drama, I found this film to be incredibly vibrant and refreshing. After all the drab and dreary flicks I’ve watched in the past few days, it was invigorating to watch a movie with some zest. The movie was filmed in Italy with the deepest Technicolor saturation possible, and it equates to looking like a mix between The African Queen and a rainbow’s armpit. It’s that vibrant.

But it’s still a serious endeavor, although my witty bon mot was nothing to sneeze at. It’s all about the misunderstanding of emotions in a relationship. People can’t read one another, nor can they read themselves, and this creates gauntlets upon gauntlets for each of us in our travails. Godard clearly enjoys pitting a character’s humanity against him, and this is a perfect example of a film where the only protagonists and antagonists that exist lie solely in the hearts of artists and the personalities they attract in their lives.

The screenwriter, played by Michel Piccoli, is beset on all sides with troubles, like the brave Odysseus he writes about, and watching him having to deal with all of it at once can be hard to watch. Fritz Lang is funny just because he’s playing himself, and his drive to make “art” is a real treat to watch. Jack Palance, believe it or not, plays the playboy Hollywood producer who wants to wreck the classy artistic nature of the picture. It’s a turn from his average tough-guy role, and I wish he had done more of this work before permanently type-casting himself as a man’s man. He ‘s a villain, but you don’t hate him. Michel Piccoli is a hero, but you don’t love him. They’re people, just like you and I; it’s only a matter of who’s more sympathetic.

If you’re a history major, or if you just like the classics, this film contains a number of allusions to The Odyssey. Using Italy as a backdrop for the film was no mere coincidence. It places the audience in that strange limbo between antiquity and the present, where magic still seems almost possible if not quite. Godard’s characters mirror the protagonists, and I’ll let you figure out just who’s who. It’s yet another layer to this deceivingly simple piece about human relations that interests Godard so much.

It’s a powerful drama from a master in his prime. Like watching the gods of old create the moon and the stars, it makes one wonder how someone can create so much outside of himself. There is plenty to enjoy here, and I’m dying to watch this again sometime soon. I cannot in good conscience give this anything less than 10 rainbow armpits out of 10. It was fantastic, and I recommend it to any serious lover of cinema and the arts.

Tomorrow I take a look at the Pink Floyd film The Wall! Will I like it? Will I not? I can’t handle the SUSPENCE!!!

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