But Contempt’s glossy sheen is just that—a sheen. Behind its carefully controlled tracking shots and lush, emotional score is a movie that's potentially as subversive as those others marking him off from France’s “Tradition of Quality.”
Michel Piccoli plays Paul, a playwright who’s been hired by Hollywood producer Jeremy (Jack Palance) to rewrite the script for a big-screen version of “The Odyssey” being directed by Fritz Lang (himself). If this sounds like the movie’s plot, though, it would be more accurate really to call it the subplot, as everything that happens between these three men takes a backseat to a story of Paul’s marriage—or, more specifically, the collapse of Paul’s marriage.
Sex symbol Brigitte Bardot stars as Camille, Paul’s wife and the object of Jeremy’s attentions, and I would like to emphasize the word “object” here, for throughout the film Godard photographs Bardot in seductive poses purposely objectify her.
Why does he do it?
From a utilitarian perspective, one that severs content from form, there may not be one. Godard just wants to titillate us, you might say.
But this ignores the historical realities behind Contempt’s production, as well as Godard’s own politics. According to Roger Ebert, when Godard’s financial backers saw a rough cut of the film, they balked at its lack of nudity, remarking that “he had cheated them by shooting a film starring Bardot and including not one nude shot.” Ebert adds, “In revenge, he gave them acres of skin but no eroticism.”
In other words, when faced with the same kind of situation as his characters, Paul and Mr. Lang, Godard responds with a critique of capitalist ideology disguised as capitulation.
How well does he really pull this critique off? That's debatable. Personally, I'm not sure he entirely succeeds. Neither would I rank Contempt as one of my favorite Godard films (that distinction would go to My Life to Live and maybe Pierrot le Fou). Still, it's transfixing in its own way. Lush would be a good word to describe it. Mythic and epic would work too, despite its intimate plot and settings. A feeling of mystery and of a piercing sadness permeates the entire picture. It is, for whatever it may lack, undeniably haunting and beautiful.