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($9 tix only, cash only),
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Sitwell's Coffee House
513 281 7487
Lookout Joe Coffee Roasters
513 871 8626
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513 542 2739
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513 591 0123
513 651 5483
"A seductive bouquet of enchantments: Bardot's beauty, primary colors, luxury objects, nature ... What makes CONTEMPT a singular viewing experience today, even more than in 1963, is the way it stimulates an audience's intelligence as well as its senses. Complex and dense, it unapologetically accommodates discussions about Homer, Dante and German Romantic poetry, meditations on the fate of cinema and the role of the gods in modern life, the creative process, the deployment of Cinemascope."
~ Phillip Lopate
in still photos from the film, CLICK HERE
"Brilliant, romantic and genuinely tragic.
... one of the greatest films ever made
about the actual process of moviemaking."
~ Martin Scorsese, Director & Film Curator
~ Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
>>> READ or LISTEN TO the WVXU film review by Larry Thomas.
>>> READ the Jason Gargano review in Cincinnati City Beat Recommends
About the Film
For French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, the opportunity to make a wide-screen Technicolor film with major stars and Hollywood money was impossible to pass up. While the experience was not easy or enjoyable for the participants, the result was worth the tension and strife.
Godard's work epitomizes French cinema's "nouvelle vague" - New Wave - and most everyone has heard of or watched Breathless, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, Vivre Sa Vie, Band of Outsiders, Week End and others.
Much of his work is characterized by limited budgets, black-and-white film, long takes, jump cuts and improvised writing and acting. CONTEMPT transcends these parameters - shot gorgeously in Cinemascope, rife with color (particularly a certain shade of red), offering a level of emotional content, and impact, not always seen in Godard films.
This is a film about a disintegrating marital relationship between a screenwriter, Michel Piccoli and his trophy wife, French icon Brigitte Bardot. Set amid the chaotic making of an Italian film, Piccoli "sells out" by agreeing to rewrite an adaption of Homer's Odyssey, to gain funds for the purchase of beautiful apartment for Bardot.
In so doing, he finds himself in the middle of fireworks between a classical narrative film director played by the legendary Fritz Lang and an abrasive, egomanical Hollywood producer, Jack Palance.
CONTEMPT is also a story of contrasts - classical Old Wave, contemporary New Wave and the Hollywood studio system; the juxtaposition of beautiful widescreen backgrounds of Capri and the tranquil Mediterranean against a complex, tense and pivotal scene between husband and wife confined to the interior of their apartment; and a variety of idioms in French, Italian, English and German bespeaking the 'global economy' long before the phrase gained traction in the U.S.
For further insight into the storyline, characters, cast, crew and creation of CONTEMPT, read Phillip Lopate's informative essay in the panel below.
Post-film discussion leaders:
Hal Carlton-Ford and Tim Swallow
Hal Carlton-Ford is a local filmmaker, working as a gaffer, grip and cinematographer. An avid student of film history, with particular interest in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Hal also studies Greek and Latin in the University of Cincinnati Classics department.
Phillip Lopate on CONTEMPT
In 1963, film buffs were drooling over the improbable news that Jean-Luc Godard - renowned for hit-and-run, art-house bricolages like ''Breathless'' and ''My Life to Live'' - was shooting a big Cinemascope color movie with Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance, based on Alberto Moravia's best-selling novel, ''The Ghost at Noon.''
Then word leaked out that Godard was having problems with his producers, Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine, who were upset that the rough cut was so chaste. Not a single nude scene with B.B. -- not even a sexy costume! Godard obliged by adding a prologue of husband and wife (Michel Piccoli and Bardot) in bed, which takes inventory of that sumptuous figure through color filters. While she asks for reassurance about each part of her body, he reassures her ominously, ''I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.''
Beyond that ''compromise,'' Godard refused to budge, saying, ''Hadn't they ever bothered to see a Godard film?''
The irony is that ''Contempt'' itself deals with a conflict between a European director (Fritz Lang playing himself) and a crude American producer, Jerry Prokosch (performed with animal energy by Palance), over a remake of Homer's ''Odyssey.'' Prokosch hires a French screenwriter, Paul (Piccoli), to rewrite Lang's script. Paul takes the job partly to buy an apartment for his wife, the lovely Camille (Bardot), but in selling his talents, he loses stature in her eyes. Camille also thinks her husband is allowing the powerful, predatory Prokosch to flirt with her. Piccoli, in the performance that made him a star, registers with every nuance the defensive cockiness of an intellectual turned hack who feels himself outmanned.
According to the director Pascal Aubier, who served as Godard's assistant on ''Contempt'' and many of his other pictures in the 60's, ''it was a very tormented production.'' Godard, unused to working on such a large scale, was annoyed at the circus atmosphere generated by the paparazzi who followed Bardot to Capri.
B.B., then at the height of her celebrity, arrived with her latest boyfriend, the actor Sami Frey, which further irritated Godard, who liked to have the full attention of his leading ladies.
The filmmaker was also not getting along with his wife (and usual star), Anna Karina, and seemed very lonely on the shoot, remembers Aubier. ''But then, that's not unusual for him,'' Aubier said. ''Godard also has a knack for making people around him feel awkward, and then using that to bring out tensions in the script.''
He antagonized Jack Palance by refusing to consider the actor's ideas, giving him only physical instructions: three steps to the left, look up. Palance, miserable, kept phoning his agent in America to get him off the picture. The only one Godard got on well with was Fritz Lang, whom he idolized. No sign of the shooting problems mars the implacable smoothness of the finished product. Godard famously stated that ''a movie should have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order.'' ''Contempt,'' however, adheres to the traditional order; it is built like a well-made three-act tragedy.
The first part takes place on the deserted back lots of Rome's Cinecitta studios and at the producer's house. The second part --the heart of the film --is an extraordinary half-hour sequence in the couple's apartment: a tour de force of psychological realism, as the camera tracks the married couple in their casual moves, opening a Coke, sitting on the john, taking a bath in each other's presence, doing a bit of work, walking away in the middle of a sentence. Meanwhile, they circle around their wound. Paul feels that Camille's love has changed since that morning --grown colder. She is indeed irritated by him, but still loves him. With the devastating force of Ibsen characters, they keep arguing, retreating, making up, picking the scab and find themselves in a darker emotional place.
The third part moves to Capri --the dazzling Villa Malaparte, stepped like a Mayan temple by Le Corbusier --for a holiday plus some ''Odyssey'' location shooting. Capri is an insidious ''no exit'' Elysium where luxury, caprice and natural beauty all converge to shatter the marriage. Part of the special character of ''Contempt'' is that it exists both as a realistic story and a string of iconic metaphors, connecting its historical layers. Palance's red Porsche sweeps in like Zeus's chariot. When he hurls a film can in disgust, he becomes a discus thrower (''At last you have a feeling for Greek culture,'' Lang observes drily). Bardot donning a black wig seems a temporary stand-in for both Penelope and Karina. Piccoli's character wears a hat in the bathtub to look like Dean Martin in ''Some Came Running'' (though it makes him resemble Godard himself). Piccoli's bath towel suggests a Roman toga. The monocled Lang, a walking emblem of cinema's golden age, invokes Dietrich and run-ins with Goebbels. The Villa Malaparte is both temple and prison.
Meanwhile, the Cinemascope camera observes all; approaching on a dolly in the opening shot, it tilts down and toward us like a one-eyed Polyphemus.
What makes ''Contempt'' a singular viewing experience today, even more than in 1963, is the way it stimulates an audience's intelligence as well as its senses. Complex and dense, it unapologetically accommodates discussions about Homer, Dante and German Romantic poetry, meditations on the fate of cinema and the role of the gods in modern life, the creative process, the deployment of Cinemascope. (Lang sneers that it is only good for showing ''snakes and funerals,'' but the background-hungry beauty of the cinematographer Raoul Coutard's compositions belies this.) It is also a film about language, as speakers of English, French, Italian and German fling their words against an interpreter, Francesca (Georgia Moll), in a jai alai of idioms that presciently conveys life in the new global economy. More practically, the polyglot soundtrack was a strategy to prevent the producers from dubbing the film.
''Godard is the first filmmaker to bristle with the effort of digesting all previous cinema and to make cinema itself his subject,'' wrote the critic David Thomson. Certainly ''Contempt'' is shot through with film-buff references, and it gains veracity and authority from Godard's familiarity with the business of movie making. But far from being a self-referential piece about films, it moves us because it is essentially the story of a marriage. Godard makes us care about two likable people who love each other but seem determined to throw their happiness away.
Godard is said to have originally wanted Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak for the husband and wife. Some of Novak's musing ''Vertigo'' quality adheres to Bardot. In her best acting performance, she is utterly convincing as the tentative, demure ex-secretary pulled into a larger world of glamour by her husband. Despite Godard's claim that he took Bardot as ''a package deal,'' he tampered with the B.B. persona in several ways. First he toyed with having her play the entire film in a brunet wig --depriving her of her trademark blondness --but eventually settled for using the dark wig as a significant prop. More crucial was Godard's intuition to suppress the sex kitten of ''And God Created Woman'' and ''Mamzelle Striptease,'' and to draw on a more modest, prudishly French-bourgeois side of Bardot without diminishing the shock of her beauty.
When she puts on her brunet wig in the apartment scene, she may be trying to get Paul to regard her as more intelligent than he customarily does --to escape the blond bimbo stereotype. (Her foil, Francesca, the dark-haired interpreter, speaks four languages and discusses Holderlin's poetry with Lang.) At one point Paul asks Camille, ''Why are you looking so pensive?'' And she answers: ''Believe it or not, I'm thinking. Does that surprise you?'' The inequalities in their marriage are painfully exposed: he sees himself as the brain and breadwinner, and her as a sexy trophy. Whatever her new-found contemptuous feelings may be, he has from the start made clear his condescension. ''Why did I marry a stupid 28-year-old typist?'' he blurts out.
Underneath the injustice of her implicit accusation (that Paul had pandered by leaving her alone with his employer) is a legitimate complaint: he would not have acted so cavalierly if he were not also a little bored with her. Camille says she liked him better when he was writing detective fiction and they were poor, before he fell in with that ''film crowd.'' His screenwriting does put him in a more abasing position, because the profession amounts to a school for humiliation.
More important, she has come to despise his presumption that he can analyze her mind. Not only is this unromantic, suggesting she holds no further mystery, but insultingly reductive. She is outraged at his speculation that she's making peace for reasons of self-interest --to keep the apartment. As the camera tracks between them, pausing at a lamp, Paul guesses that she is angry at him because she has seen him patting Francesca's bottom. Camille shakes her head in an astonished no, then catches herself. She scornfully accepts his demeaning reading of her.
More than anything, the middle section traces the building of a mood. When Paul demands irritably, ''What's wrong with you, what's been bothering you all afternoon?,'' he seems both to want to confront the problem (admirably) and to bully her out of her sullenness (reprehensibly). We see what he doesn't: the experimental, tentative quality of her hostility. She is ''trying on'' anger and contempt, not knowing exactly where it will go. Her grudge has a tinge of playacting, as if she fully expects to spring back to affection at any moment. Paul is a man worrying a canker sore. Whenever Camille begins to forgive, to be tender again, he won't accept it: he keeps asking her why she no longer loves him, until the hypothesis becomes a reality.
All through the 60's, Godard was fascinated with the beautiful woman who betrays (Seberg in ''Breathless''), withdraws her love (Chantal Goya in ''Masculine Feminine''), runs away (Karina in ''Pierrot le Fou'') or is faithless (Bardot in ''Contempt''). What makes ''Contempt'' an advance over this masochistic obsession with the femme fatale is that here, Godard shows complete awareness of how much at fault the man may be for the loss of the woman's love.
The film explores the mutual complicities inherent in contempt. Paul responds both ways to his wife's harsh judgment: he agrees with her, out of the intellectual's stock of self-hatred, and he considers her unjust, which leads him to lash out in a fury. He even slaps her --thereby further undercutting her shaky esteem for him. In any film today, a man slapping a woman would end the scene, but in ''Contempt'' we keep watching the sequence for 25 more minutes, as the adjustments to that slap are digested.
Pascal Aubier told me point-blank, ''Godard was on Camille's side.'' In that sense, ''Contempt'' can be seen as a form of self-criticism: a male artist analyzing the vanities and self-deceptions of the male ego. (And perhaps, too, an apology -what the cinematographer, Coutard, meant when he called the film Godard's ''love letter to his wife,'' Karina.)
Godard spoke uncharitably about ''The Ghost at Noon,'' the novel he adapted for ''Contempt,'' calling it ''a nice, vulgar read for a train journey.'' In fact, he took a good deal of the psychology, characters and plot line from the book by Moravia. Perhaps Godard's ungenerosity toward the author reflects an embarrassment at this debt, or a knee-jerk need to apologize to his avant-garde fans.
The exigencies of making a movie with a comparatively large budget and stars, based on a well-known writer's novel, limited the experimental-collage side of Godard and forced him to focus on getting across a linear narrative, in the process drawing more psychologically complex, rounded characters. Godardians regard ''Contempt'' as an anomaly, the master's most orthodox movie. The paradox is that it is also his finest. ''Pierrot le Fou'' may be more expansive, ''Breathless'' and ''Masculine Feminine'' more inventive, but in ''Contempt'' Godard was able to strike his deepest human chords.
If the film is a record of disenchantment, it is also a seductive bouquet of enchantments: Bardot's beauty, primary colors, luxury objects, nature. ''Contempt'' marked the first time that Godard went beyond the jolie-laide poetry of cities and revealed his romantic, unironic love of landscapes. The cypresses on Prokosch's estate exquisitely frame Bardot and Piccoli. Capri sits in the Mediterranean, a jewel in a turquoise setting. The last word in the film is Lang's assistant director (played by Godard himself) calling out, ''Action!'' --after which the camera pans to a tranquilly static ocean. The serene classicism of sea and sky refutes the thrashings of men.
© Phillip Lopate; first published in The New York Times, June 22, 1997