The paradox of Jean-Luc Godard's remarkable "Contempt" is that it is perhaps the French director's most atypical film as well as one you won't be able to forget.
Starring the once-in-a-lifetime cast of Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli and director Fritz Lang (playing himself), "Contempt" reveals all its gorgeous contradictions in a 50th anniversary wide-screen Technicolor restoration.
"Contempt's" story of the disappearance of love seems at first glance too conventional for the congenitally unorthodox Godard, a writer-director who was known for saying things like "a movie should have a beginning, a middle and an end, though not necessarily in that order."
But Godard inevitably brought a restless, subversive cinematic intelligence to everything he did, and he had the benefit of working here with two of his most gifted collaborators, frequent cinematographer Raoul Coutard and composer Georges Delerue.
Based on a novel by Alberto Moravia that Godard typically disparaged as "a nice, vulgar one for a train journey, full of classical, old-fashioned sentiments in spite of the modernity of the situations," "Contempt" has the additional fascination of being a movie about the movies in which the age-old conflict between art and business counterpoints a love affair at a crisis point.
In fact, "Contempt" opens with a lovely, inventive scene of a camera slowly tracking a moving actress as Godard's voice-over reads the film's key credits, rather than having them appear as type on the screen.
Though Giorgia Moll has a key supporting role as a fetching translator/factotum named Francesca and Godard himself appears briefly as an assistant director, "Contempt" is basically a four-character story. Not characters, really, but as close to archetypes as the Greek gods who play key roles in the film within a film we get to see.
Introduced first are the married couple of Camille and Paul Javal, played by Piccoli and Bardot. "Contempt" made him a star and gave her, already an international sex symbol, the most substantial role of her career.
Paul is a former crime novelist and would-be playwright who has fallen into screenwriting and written a current success, the puckishly named "Toto Against Hercules." As tortured, conflicted and impotent as only an on-screen writer can be, he wears a black fedora at all times; Paul is an obsessive cinephile who, much like Godard himself, is passionate about the films of the past.
Paul is also "totally, tenderly, tragically" in love with his wife, the beautiful Camille, a former typist who, at least initially, reciprocates his feelings.
The happy couple is introduced, in a scene the film's producers mandated because they felt Godard's final cut was too chaste, lolling in bed together in their Rome apartment, Paul fully clothed and Camille naked, lying on her stomach. Godard, however, had the visual last word. He later filtered the entire sequence through red, white and blue filters, to disorienting effect.
Even more disorienting is the presence of American producer Jerry Prokosch, forcefully played by Palance, who asks Paul to take a meeting with him at Rome's deserted Cinecittà studios.
Pompous and bombastic, Jerry is meant to be the classic know-nothing intrusive American presence, someone who drives a bright red Alfa Romeo convertible and says things like "when I hear the world 'culture' I bring out my checkbook."
Jerry is currently producing a high-tone version of "The Odyssey," which Lang, who plays himself as a complete artiste given to quoting both Friedrich Hölderlin and Bertolt Brecht, is directing. Jerry wants to hire Paul to change the artsy focus of the film, and, as soon as he lays eyes on Camille, wants to expropriate her as well.
Not surprisingly, Jerry's attentions subtly change the dynamics of this marriage, a situation we watch unfold during a fascinating half-hour sequence of arguing, reconciling and arguing some more that includes some of the most emotionally realistic moments of Godard's career.
Helping this sequence, and the entire film, are cinematographer Cotard's magisterial tracking shots and Delerue's constantly crescendoing music. Their collaboration with Godard results in what is inevitably a melancholy film, but a memorable one as well.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles, and Playhouse 7, Pasadena