Jean-Luc Godard was and remains a director whose oeuvre oscillates between a clear repulsion and exultant attraction to the intricacies, inner workings and capabilities of his metier. Nowhere was this more profoundly expressed than in Le Mépris (1963), a biting critique of the cinema industry and, according to Martin Scorsese, “one of the greatest films ever made about the actual process of filmmaking.” Benefitting from a re-release in all its Cinemascopic glory to coincide with the BFI’s series on the great auteur, Le Mépris retains every inch of its epic scope and relevance to a contemporary audience.
Though Godard may have wanted Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra as his lead stars, Le Mépris features a venomous, dazzling Brigitte Bardot as Camille and Michel Piccoli as her writer husband Paul. Drawn to Rome to assist with the script of a film produced by Jack Palance’s bullish Prokosch and directed by Fritz Lang, the couple’s troubled marriage disintegrates over the course of three acts. Godard’s feature conforms and aspires to the Classical form of Greek tragedy to which it alludes throughout. Indeed, the film-within-a-film is an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, considered by Paul to be the story of a man who loves a wife that does not love him back. The layers of meaning overlap and reinforce one another and could even speak to the director’s tempestuous marriage to his muse and then wife Anna Karina which lasted six short years.
From the discord of its opening frame, a credit sequence spoken by the director and Raoul Coutard’s camera turning to face across the fourth wall, there is something simultaneously jarring and remarkably fluid about Le Mépris. Uniform in its linear construction but spliced with moments of choppy editing, frantic jumps in both time and space, a striking use of primary colours and a classical score which threatens to overwhelm the frequently disjointed dialogue, Godard’s supreme craft in seamlessly weaving together a wealth of divergent threads is staggering.
Multiple instances of inter-textuality form a rich collage, culminating in a less than positive state of the nation address on cinema at the time. Lang appears as himself, much like Jean-Pierre Melville’s cameo as famous writer ‘Parvulesco’ in A bout de souffle/Breathless (1960), but the German master is a weary, subdued shadow of his former self, submitted to the financial bureaucracy, bullying and ignorance of his producer and big budget filmmaking. Posters of Vivre Sa Vie, Hatari and Psycho adorn the walls of a crumbling CineCitta set and Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio In Italia – of which Godard’s film could be considered a remake – plays at a local cinema. Does filmmaking constitute art or merely a financial endeavour? It is testament to Le Mépris‘ place in cinema history that its scathing regard on the state of cinema remains as pertinent to the modern landscape as it did fifty years ago. It is essential viewing and a true classic.