Director Jean-Luc Godard once famously said, "All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun." While that seemed to work fine for Breathless, in Contempt Godard told a more complex more multilayered story than in some of his Paris gangster films.
The history behind Contempt is worth noting. It was to be the first Godard film shot in "glorious Cinescope." He had Brigitte Bardot as the female lead. He had major studio backing. Jack Palance also starred and legendary director Fritz Lang as himself. Bardot was known more or less as as sex kitten at the time, and when Godard's first cut was turned in the studio was furious that there was no nudity. So, Godard shot a scene that he tacked on to the beginning where Bardot and her screen boyfriend (Michel Piccoli were lying in bed naked. The shot was done through red, white, and blue filters and you only see Bardot from behind, in a way neutralizing her sexuality. This likely angered the studio's more, which was liklely Godard's ambition.
The film itself tells of the breakup of a marraige. Paul is a playwright who has been brought in to rewrite some scenes for Fritz Lang's adaptation of The Odyssey. The producer, Jeremy Proksoch (played by Palance), eventually makes a pass at Camille. At the same time Camille suspects Paul of making a pass at the producers assistant. Or does she? Maybe she just wants a way out.
The movie is told in basically three parts. The first is on the studio lot. The second is an argument in the apartment between Paul and Camille, and the third is on the shore of Capris getting ready to shoot the film. The middle section seems to be what everyone remembers from this movie and with good reason. For nearly 40 minutes you see Paul and Camille walking around there apartment getting into an argument about the earlier events of the day. Paul continually asks her why she doesn't love him anymore. At this point she may still in fact love him, but his constant badgering seems to push her away. At times they even seem close to reconciliation, only to see it fall apart again. The scene is done in real time and at once is beautiful and at the same time incredibly frustrating to watch. You are seeing two people fall out of love before your eyes and it's just painful, especially as at the heart of it, both remain likeable characters.
There is plenty of other themes going on in this movie. It brims over qwith discussions on literature, film, and art in general. It will likely take a few viewings to take it all in. The conversation jumps between German, French, Italian, and English. Primary colors set the mood throughout the whole film as it's impossible not to appreciate the visual mood that Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard create.
In his review, Roger Ebert said that this was an experiment for Godard. That he tried the bigger budget huge epic story in this film, but it didn't really work. That it proved to Godard and to the viewer that Godard was better at his typical Breathless/Band of Outsiders fare. I disagree. While Band of Outsiders remains my favorite Godard film, I'd be hard pressed to say that it was better. Contempt just covers so much ground between art and relationships, ambition, and it's wonderful to look at. And don't get me started on the score, which was beautiful. In fact, it was reused by Martin Scorcese in Casino as another screen romance was falling apart.
I thought back to Fellini's 8 1/2 after seeing this. The paralells being that both were movies about a movie being made. The main difference, in my opinion being that by setting romance and love alongside ambition for art Godard's contempt had a more human feel to it than one man's descent into madness as you view in 8 1/2. And, that humanity I think that's what keeps me coming back to Godard films, over and over again.