Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My Life in Anamorphic Widescreen: Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

As much as I am absolutely head-over-heels for going out to the theater, I've almost certainly seen the majority of the movies I've seen on DVD or Blu-Ray in the comfort of my own home. With home theater technology where it is, it's hardly the sacrifice it once was, but I'm slowly coming to terms with the idea that these discs are our cinema. My DVD/Blu-Ray reviews are thus less a standard home theater review, broken into parts analyzing the film itself, the image and audio quality, and the supplements separately, but rather looking at how those elements come together to give us a complete idea of the film in question, and further, of cinema itself.

When I first saw what many posit as Jean-Luc Godard's masterpiece, I had no idea what I was in for. The description offered on the Criterion Collection disc, the best option at the time for seeing this thing, played up the film industry satire element. Obviously that's in the film (far more dispiriting than most satire, I might add), but then out of nowhere you get over a half an hour, trapped inside an apartment, watching the breakdown of a marriage.

This, of course, is what Contempt is REALLY about.

It's about the struggle to communicate and convey, and when viewed in relation to Godard's other films of the era, one need not read one of the many biographies available to know that his domestic life was far from peaceful. Much of his films in the 1960s deal with the inability of men and women to communicate, typically due to disparate desires and goals, but just as often because the man, despite being brilliant, is too stubborn and sure of his superiority, and the woman, while breathtakingly beautiful, can sense the man's egotism and avoids conflict at all costs. On a personal note, I have known many breathtakingly beautiful women, many of whom avoid conflict at all costs, so, y'know...I can relate.

That image was not ripped directly from the recently-released Blu-Ray from Lionsgate's StudioCanal Collection, which I'll be discussing here, but rather taken with my camera, so don't judge the disc's picture quality on that (the others are directly from the official website, and are to my eyes representative of the image quality). However, I thought it worth highlighting - in Contempt...Tenderly, a special feature included on the disc, one of the interviewees (whose name escapes me at the moment, and since the documentary's text description of who he is was in French anyway, I couldn't tell you all that much about him) notes that the film is an hour-and-a-half-long extrapolate of one moment: this moment.

Look at how Paul (Michel Piccoli) guides his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), into the car, away from him, without a care for what she really wants. Look at, if the screencap does it justice, the subtlety of Bardot's glance, and how she reaches towards him even as he pushes her away. Just minutes ago (in movie time) we saw them together in bed, her trying to assert his love for her, he trying to assuage her doubts. Both totally connected, totally together. Some time from now, we'll see them unable to connect about anything.

This, my friends, is filmmaking - conveying the past, present, and hinting at the future all in one image. Hell, conveying the entire mystery that seems to elude so many (including a critic and screenwriter, Alain Bergala, who also appears in Contempt...Tenderly) - just where does the contempt in Contempt stem from? While, in the end, less specific than the result of a series of events, it stems from this moment.

There's a fascinating documentary also included on the disc called Once Upon a Time There Was...Contempt, featuring an interview with none other than Godard himself. Now, I spent much of the time marveling at this, as I've never seen footage of Godard post-1960s (this documentary was produced just last year), and it still kind of bends my mind that Godard is still out there, making movies, and seemingly as fresh as ever (compare him to the Godard of the early 1960s we see in conversation with Fritz Lang, also available on this disc, and the man seems hardly to have aged in spirit, though his movies, or what I understand of them, certainly indicate he has).

What was I saying...oh yes, on this documentary, Godard claims he went into this intending to make his most straightforward, classical film. While that's certainly true, it's telling of his process that as a result he has a half-hour scene in one location - his films will never be straightforward or classical, they will always be mysteries, the collective result of his personal struggles and political views filtered through cinema.

And what cinema - if one were to simply play the film with the subtitles off (and assuming one does not speak French), the visual and aural landscape of the film is more than sufficient for it to stand alongside the great antiestablishment pop art of the 1960s (there is a lot of common ground between him and Andy Warhol). In a piece called The Dinosaur and the Baby (available on this disc), a constant thread runs through Godard's conversation with director Fritz Lang - the rise of consumerism in film culture (good to know some things never change). Godard's films of this era are all, at least in part, desperate attempts to reclaim culture from consumerism, and here he directly attacks the film industry with this motive.

The disc does his cinema justice. Some have complained that the film occasionally seems to have been pieced together from disparate elements, I much prefer this approach. It gives the film a texture one is likely to find in a repertory cinema, and with rep houses falling by the wayside, our televisions are our rep houses, and I want the film to look like film dammit, not the damn football game. With these touches (one could call them oversights, and still be correct), along with a fine presence of grain throughout (almost too fine for my tastes), we get true cinema right in our homes.

I cannot commend this release enough. After StudioCanal, who controls the rights to Contempt and many other foreign classics, yanked many of their films (including Contempt) away from The Criterion Collection, many of us were afraid we'd be littered with substandard editions of some of the greatest films ever to run through a projector. At least in this case, our fears can rest - with three documentaries in French, a conversation with Fritz Lang (who appears in the film) in German, and an absolutely masterful transfer, they're hardly aiming for the lowest common denominator who just saw Brigitte Bardot on the cover and said "I gotta get me some of that."

Although, if I may be crude for just a second, one could hardly blame them. Now, before you run out after me crying misogyny, I do want to point out that the next image comes from a scene that was demanded by the financiers because they thought that by paying for Contempt, they would surely see Bardot naked (she was, after all, famous largely for doing just that). That's not what's important; what's important is that I cannot imagine the movie without this scene. It is absolutely vital to establishing a relationship soon to crumble, and sows the seeds of all the conflict to come.

I cannot overstate how great this movie is, and the justice done to it by this disc. Rent it, buy it, whatever you've got to do, just see it for yourself.


Anonymous said...

I do no even have to see this "masterpiece." The title says it all. And it has all been said before. How can there be anything but contempt between needy and selfish people? He retreats and she pursues and no one is loved.

Godard wants love as much as the rest of us, but has nothing to say to get us there. His giving us a glimpse of Bardot's bare butt, magnificient as some might find it, is not even close to enough to cover his own ass-backward take on marriage.

Perhaps the recently released "Make Way for Tomorrow" has something more useful and relevant to say. Ironically, this movie, made in 1938, long before the sexual revolution, tells us the truth about love and sex that we so long not to hear. The elderly characters in this movie enjoy more tenderness than the couple in "Contempt" could ever know. Love isn't for the sexy, clever, or rich, it is for the humble, selfless, and steadfast.

Scott Nye said...

I see where you're coming from, but I don't really see Contempt as a portrait of love. I'd be surprised if anyone did. Romance, maybe, but only in the sense of it being lost. Definitely the difficulties of communication that can arise in a relationship, and definitely specific to these people in this situation.

I'm dying to see Make Way for Tomorrow (it's a "Very Long Wait" on Netflix of course), but I don't think portraying marriage as humble, selfless, and tender is the only way to do so, as far too many people get married for the wrong reasons, and end up exactly where the people in Contempt do.

And uncomfortable truth, but certainly a truth, and one, I feel, worth exploring.