Judge Dan Mancini breeds contempt.
"I love you totally, tenderly, tragically."—Paul Javal
When French production and distribution house StudioCanal opted not to relicense its catalog for North America home video distribution to The Criterion Collection but instead cut a new deal with Lionsgate, it caused a great deal of heartburn among American art film and home video enthusiasts. Especially since Criterion had announced a Blu-ray release of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's late period masterpiece Ran, only to have to pull it from their schedule. Now the first two titles from Lionsgate's new boutique StudioCanal Collection are landing on Blu-ray: Ran and the title under review here, Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (Le Mépris). So, did Lionsgate do the films justice, or are we all going to wish that StudioCanal had stuck with Criterion?
Facts of the Case
Crime novelist Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli, La Belle Noiseuse) is living in wedded bliss with his young wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot, And God Created Woman) until he is approached by American film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance, Batman) to do some rewrites on a screenplay for an adaptation of Homer's The Odyssey being directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself). Prokosch wants a movie that delves more deeply into the characters' motivations, while Lang insists that the power of Homer's work is its raw truth—motivations are irrelevant. Disarmed by Lang's artistic confidence and bullied by the headstrong Prokosch, Javal wants out of the gig but needs money to pay for his apartment so Camille doesn't have to go back to work as a typist. His compromises disrupt the harmony of his relationship with his wife, until she finally declares that she no longer loves him.
His sixth feature film, Contempt sits squarely in the first phase of Jean-Luc Godard's career, a period during which he wore his love of all things cinema on his sleeve and hungrily explored the depth and breadth of his own talent. Like each of the five films he'd made previously, it strikes out in a new direction for Godard. Though far from conventional, it is Godard's experiment in mainstream filmmaking, what with French "It" girl of the early '60s Brigitte Bardot and American movie actor Jack Palance leading the cast. Though it is more dramatically conventional and custom-made to turn a box office buck, Contempt is still a Godard movie, full of references to the history of cinema and deeply aware of its own artifice.
During the movie's opening credits sequence, Godard reads the credits while we watch cinematographer Roaul Coutard trolley towards the screen while operating a camera pointed 90 degrees away from us. When he reaches the end of the track, Coutard turns the camera at us, as though he is filming us watching the movie. Not long after the credit sequence, there's a scene in which Prokosch and Javal join Lang as the director watches dailies of his movie. It's a classic bit of Godardian reflexiveness. We watch scenes from Lang's film as well as Lang watching his film, the projector flickering behind his head. The effect of these stylistic choices is to remind us that we are watching Godard's film, that despite the emotional resonance of the characters' stories, the entire thing is artifice. Contempt, like Fellini's 8 ½ and Truffaut's Day For Night, is very much a movie about moviemaking, though it is less concerned with filmmaker psychology than the former and less farcical than the latter. Above all, Contempt is about the toll of the business of filmmaking on real human beings.
Thematically, Contempt has a lot in common with L'Amore, the short film Godard made as part of the Franco-Italian anthology film Love and Anger, made in 1967, at the beginning of the director's political period. Though made four years earlier, Contempt represents a more full-bodied and somehow more mature exploration of the theme of the incompatibility of sexual innocence and capitalism. Contempt opens with a long, iconic scene of Bardot stretched nude on a bed with Piccoli beside her. They coyly discuss his attraction to every part of her body, beginning with her feet and moving upward. The Javals' life together is simple, deeply sexual, yet innocent until commerce complicates things. Prokosch approaches Paul Javal to rewrite his film because of Paul's previous work on what sounds like an atrociously bad Hercules film. Prokosch is confident Paul wants the work because he's heard that Javal has a beautiful wife, the implication being that only money can keep a beautiful woman—a woman with sexual options—domesticated. Prokosch's money and power bring with it a socioeconomic hierarchy—a hierarchy in which Prokosch occupies the top spot, while Paul is diminished. Camille doesn't fall out of love with Paul and come to despise him because Prokosch is a more impressive alpha male. Her attachment to Paul is severed because Paul loses himself in the wake of Prokosch's imposing physical and psychological presence (Godard uses Palance's height, build, looks, and movie star presence to the full). The marriage comes to an end when Paul allows the smarmy American producer to drive his wife to Rome, alone, in his red Alpha Romeo. It's a moment that sneaks up on Paul, one in which he tries to play the diplomat in the face of Prokosch's blatant sexual aggression. It is also the moment when commerce—Paul's quest to make enough money that Camille will not have to return to her dreary job as a typist—shatters the simple purity of the couple's marriage.
Godard and Coutard shot Contempt beautifully in Cinemascope, making full and artful use of the 2.35:1 frame. Cinephiles who have been wrestling with angst over the fact that Godard's classic is making its high definition debut with a distributor other than Criterion can take a deep breath and relax. Lionsgate's Blu-ray, which is a port of StudioCanal's French edition with a few modifications for North American audiences, is a mostly impressive piece of work. The 1080p AVC transfer leaves little room for complaint. Detail is noticeably superior to Criterion's DVD. Colors are warm and accurate. The image is stable with a very attractive patina of grain. Contempt has never looked better on a home video format.
The default audio option is a two-channel uncompressed DTS-HD presentation of the movie's original French mono track. Because Contempt was a huge international success, English, German, and Spanish dubs were created for the movie. All are included here, as well as a whopping eight subtitle options.
The dual-layered Blu-ray disc houses five fairly impressive video supplements:
Introduction by Colin MacCabe (5:31)—The writer, film producer, and English professor provides a lengthy introduction to the film that delves into its themes, its production, and its place in Godard's oeuvre. MacCabe appears slightly uncomfortable on camera (mainly because his comments are carefully outlined), but his presentation is substantive enough that I wish he'd been allowed to record a feature-length audio commentary instead.
Once Upon a Time There Was Contempt (52:28)—This retrospective making-of documentary was made as part of a French television show about cinema. In it, Godard himself looks back on making the movie.
Contempt…Tenderly (31:31)—A more conventional making-of documentary, this piece begins with the novel by Alberto Moravia that inspired the film, and then moves chronologically through the movie's production and release.
The Dinosaur and the Baby (60:57)—Shot around the time of Contempt's production, this piece is an hour-long conversation between veteran director Fritz Lang and young upstart Godard. The discussion is punctuated with scenes from the film.
Conversation with Fritz Lang (14:27)—This interview with Lang was conducted during the publicity push for Contempt's release. It's essentially an electronic press kit, but is still interesting because of Lang's enormous stature in film history.
There is also a trailer for the film. The disc is BD-Live enabled, though no content was yet available at the time of this writing.
An 18-page booklet inside the keepcase contains a lengthy essay about Contempt by film studies professor Ginette Vincendeau (Stars and Stardom in French Cinema).
Contempt is not only Godard's most popular movie, it is one of his most accessible. Those new to the director would be wise to start here. This BD presents the film in a beautiful transfer that puts all earlier DVD versions of the film to shame. Fans of the movie may want to keep their Criterion DVDs for Robert Stam's excellent audio commentary, but this Blu-ray is the best way to watch Contempt short of seeing it in a theater. While it's a drag that Criterion and StudioCanal are no longer in cahoots, it's difficult to find fault with what Lionsgate has delivered in this high definition package.
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