Is the sight of Brigitte Bardot's naked ass one of the most philosophically profound images in the history of cinema? Jean-Luc Godard would have us believe so. He devotes a not inconsiderable amount of screen time in 'Contempt' ('Le Mépris') to long, lingering looks at it. Make no mistake, it's a very fine ass indeed. A man could get lost in his thoughts staring at its perfect curves, firm musculature, and luscious, creamy skin. In fact, that's probably the idea. What was I talking about, again? Oh, right…
After one of Godard's characteristically strange credits sequences, 'Contempt' effectively opens with its second shot, an extended, unobstructed view of Bardot's entire exposed backside for two and a quarter unbroken minutes. In the scene, she lounges nude in bed with (clothed) actor Michel Piccoli. They play married couple Camille and Paul, and spend the time professing their eternal undying love for each other. This will be the last happy moment in their marriage.
Paul is a writer. He's been hired by obnoxious American movie producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance, delighting in camp) to rewrite his new adaptation of Homer's 'The Odyssey', which is being directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself). Lang wants to make a very faithful and classical film from the material. This infuriates Jerry, who's paid a lot of money and wants to see plenty of sex, violence, and a modern reinterpretation of the story. Paul knows he'll be stuck in the middle, but takes the job because it will pay for his apartment and hopefully further his career. Big mistake.
As soon as he gets involved with the project, Paul's relationship with Camille starts to crumble, for reasons he professes not to understand for a very long time. But he should understand, because those reasons are entirely of his own doing. After accepting the job, Paul introduces Prokosch to Camille. The producer flirts crudely and shamelessly with her right in front of Paul, who pretends to be oblivious to what's going on. Paul sends Camille on ahead alone with Jerry to a get-together at his villa. He then takes a very long time arriving himself. Camille is furious. She believes that Paul has been pushing her into Jerry's arms, attempting to prostitute her as a bargaining chip for his new job. She feels this way because, well, that's exactly what he's done. Nevertheless, he claims ignorance as to what she's talking about. His story might be more believable if he didn't flirt with other women, slap Camille around, and continue to push her toward Jerry over and over again throughout the picture.
Godard posits 'Contempt' as an allegory for the corruption of art by commerce. The more Paul sells out his values to the superficial allure of Hollywood, the more Camille's contempt for him grows, and the more his marriage suffers. This mirrors Godard's own real life, at least how he saw it. 'Contempt' was his first movie with a significant budget and an American producer (Joseph E. Levine) who insisted on the addition of more commercial elements (like extra scenes with Bardot naked) that Godard at first resisted. As this was happening, Godard's marriage to actress Anna Karina was notoriously tempestuous. No doubt, he saw the two things as directly related, and tried to express that on screen.
The problem is that the film never really sells this simplistic correlation. Paul's marriage doesn't fall apart just because his wife despises him for compromising his artistic values. It collapses because he behaves like an ass and treats her badly. What this says about Godard himself is open to interpretation.
Like most of the director's films, 'Contempt' is filled with pretentious attempts to play with or deconstruct the language of cinema. In the opening sequence, we watch the movie's cinematographer Raoul Coutard film actress Francesca Vanini as the credits are spoken aloud on the soundtrack. Then Coutard turns his camera directly into the camera from which we're watching, as if to remind us that this is all just a movie. Later scenes are jaggedly intercut with flashbacks. An overbearing score often drowns out the dialogue. During a scene in which Jerry auditions singers, the music and singing abruptly cut out on the soundtrack whenever the main characters speak.
Despite affectations like this, the movie otherwise has a linear and comprehensible story. It should be more accessible to a general audience than Godard's later, more experimental works like 'Pierrot le fou'. Contributing greatly to this is the casting of film idol Brigitte Bardot, who is an enormously appealing and sympathetic screen presence. The scene where she recites a string of expletives must be one of the sexiest moments ever captured on celluloid (even more so than her nudity, which is considerably sexy). For as hateful as Paul's behavior is, Camille remains the emotional anchor of the movie.
Of course, because Godard is ultimately a misogynist, he sides with Paul and has to make Camille suffer for her virtues. Some will see this as an uncompromising artist expressing his world view. Others will wonder what anyone ever saw in him in the first place. I wonder. I really wonder.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Contempt' last appeared on American home video back in 2002 as a DVD from the Criterion Collection. Since that time, original rights-holder Studio Canal has withdrawn Criterion's license to the movie. Instead, the studio has regrouped and attempted to position itself as a European equivalent to Criterion by issuing new deluxe editions of many of the classic titles in its catalog. In France, Studio Canal has re-released these movies under its own label. In other countries, it has licensed them to new international distributors. In the United States, Lionsgate Entertainment was granted the license. 'Contempt' arrives on Blu-ray disc in the U.S. as part of Lionsgate's new Studio Canal Collection line.
The discs in the Studio Canal Collection are direct ports of those released in Europe. Lionsgate has done nothing other than change the packaging. The 'Contempt' disc is coded for Regions A and B, and opens with a menu screen asking you to choose from a list of several countries. The option you select will determine the studio logos and menu languages to follow. For example, if you choose USA, the Lionsgate trailer will play. But if you choose the UK, an Optimum Home Entertainment trailer plays instead.
The American Blu-ray is packaged in a standard keepcase with cardboard slipcover. An 18-page booklet is included in the case. (The UK has alternate digibook packaging.) Other than the country menu described above and studio trailer, the disc has no other promos or movie trailers before the main menu. That menu, however, is incredibly over-the-top obscenely loud. I'm not kidding. The music over the menu is at least 20 dB louder than the movie, which is already obnoxiously loud. (More on that below.) I strongly recommend muting your volume before the menu loads.
What the hell happened here? This disc looks terrible. Absolutely terrible. If the Studio Canal Collection is meant to be a competitor to the Criterion Collection, Studio Canal should at least attempt to match the quality standards that Criterion employs. It hasn't even tried. Comparing 'Contempt' to Criterion's release of Godard's 'Pierrot le fou' shows a night-and-day difference in how the two movies have been treated.
'Contempt' opens with a disclaimer that some footage that was previously cut from American releases of the film has been restored. The American theatrical release in 1964 was trimmed of about a minute from the original 103 minute length. One might be willing to forgive Studio Canal if that restored footage were in a little rougher condition than the rest of the movie. It's a lot harder to forgive when the entire movie regularly experiences dramatic drops in picture quality, often shot-for-shot within scenes. Much of the film is soft and faded, and looks like a multi-generation dupe print.
Technically, the disc is encoded with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. However, at least half the movie looks like it's been upconverted from standard definition. Badly upconverted. Detail is frequently no better than a poor DVD. Even bright outdoor scenes are swimming in noise and compression artifacts.True, some of the movie is truly in high definition. At its best, the footage looks like a mediocre cable HD broadcast. If the entire movie looked this way, I'd be willing to give it a pass. But the picture is just far too inconsistent. And so much of it just looks so very, very awful. I can hardly believe this is really a Blu-ray. I own DVDs that look better.
For what it's worth, the movie's aspect ratio is credited at 2.35:1, but measures closer to 2.33:1 on my screen. The optional English subtitles are contained entirely within the movie image, and are safe for viewing on Constant Image Height projection screens.
Picture, if you will, a 3-inch iron nail being dragged slowly across a chalkboard. Now imagine that sound played back through a megaphone cranked to maximum that's being held directly up to your ear... for nearly two hours. That's what the experience of watching 'Contempt' sounds like. Only less enjoyable.
As bad as the video quality of the disc looks, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is even worse. Godard has a fascination with drowning out many of his movie scenes in music that's far louder than the dialogue. This was annoying on the Criterion release of 'Pierrot le fou'. The imbalance is exacerbated here by the poor fidelity of Studio Canal's audio elements. Dialogue (most of which was recorded live) is thin, hollow, and frequently echoes. The music is ear-bleedingly shrill. Even after turning the volume down so far that the dialogue is barely audible, the music is still uncomfortably loud. I had listening fatigue within the first 15 minutes. Before the movie was over, I felt like I'd been bludgeoned by the soundtrack.
The film's original "French" audio mix actually contains a mixture of French, English, German, and Italian dialogue. The Blu-ray also offers English, German, and Spanish dubs. Ironically, because most of the dialogue for the English dub was recorded in a studio, it sounds a little better than the original track. However, in the dub, every character speaks English. This means that the role of Prokosch's translator (Francesca Vanini) has been completely rewritten. Rather than translating for him, she simply spouts off random patter to him and the other characters.
For the most part, Studio Canal has not opted to license many of the bonus features from the Criterion Collection DVD from 2002. The new Blu-ray contains only two features previously found on the Criterion disc.
At this time, Lionsgate has not issued a corresponding DVD to go with the Blu-ray. As such, the majority of supplements on the disc can be considered high-def exclusives, and will be described in the next section of this review.
I hold Studio Canal in contempt for how they've treated this movie. I may not consider Jean-Luc Godard's 'Contempt' the masterpiece that many do, but I recognize it as an important piece of French film history that deserves a quality presentation. Unfortunately, although the Blu-ray has fairly interesting and informative bonus features, its video quality looks atrocious and the soundtrack is borderline unlistenable. If I liked the movie better, I'd be tempted to seek out the Criterion DVD. I have a feeling that it offers a more consistent and less distracting viewing experience.