Opened: August, 1997 (various play dates) | Not Rated
Another great argument in favor of the current restoration-and-rerelease trend, "Contempt" is a cinematic masterwork that superbly satires the filmmaking community with subtle yet biting aplomb.
Directed in 1963 by Jean-Luc Godard, it embraces everything that was frivolous in film at the time -- Cinemascope vistas, Brigitte Bardot's naked body, the huge-budget retelling of ancient mythology -- and turns them on their ears.
Starring Michel Piccoli as a proud writer roped into doctoring a script for a surrealistic big-screen "Odyssey," the story follows the abandonment of his integrity all the way to the end of his marriage.
Bardot plays his wife. In a role written both to exploit and defy her sex bomb image, she beautifully assumes the trappings of a trophy wife who only ever wanted uncompromised love.
"Contempt" follows the disintegration of their marriage during his work on the film. He takes the "Odyssey" job to buy her a house, but in doing so becomes the opposite of what she loved him for.
German director Fritz Lang slyly plays himself as the arrogant director of the film within a film, constantly battling over perceived artistic integrity with Jack Palance, as the vulgar and culture-less Hollywood producer who offered Piccoli the re-write job.
"You'll do it because you need the money," he says smugly.
"How do you know," Piccoli asks.
"I understand you have a very beautiful wife."
The irony runs deep both emotionally, as the Piccoli looks the other way when the producer come on to his comely wife, and visually, as Godard deliberately plays with Bardot's looks, masking her beauty in wigs and colored lighting.
The subtle slams at the film industry are ubiquitous, but the story stays focused on the downhill course of the couple's marriage.
While it deliberately mocks the prestige flavor of an art house piece and the bottom-line simplicity of studio pictures, "Contempt" is the kind of film that students of the art can study frame by frame. Godard plays teasingly with lighting, color and camera movement (especially in a scene where Piccoli interrogates Bardot about her changing heart), but in the end he's just telling a wonderfully affecting story.