Contempt

A slightly different version of this essay will appear in Car Crash Culture, an anthology edited by Mikita Brottman (forthcoming, Palgrave/St. Martin’s Press) and has been reprinted here with the kind permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC, Copyright © Brottman, Mikita.

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Cars and car crashes are running themes in the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, most notably during the ’60s era that produced several of the classics upon which his reputation primarily rests. His first feature, the 1960 crime romance Breathless, begins with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s anarchic antihero, Michel, stealing a car for a joyride during which he plays pop tunes on the radio, fiddles with a gun he finds in the glove compartment, chatters cheerfully to himself, and breaks the rules of commercial cinema by talking directly to the camera. His advice to us spectators is direct: We should go fuck ourselves if we don’t appreciate the pleasures of the everyday world as much as he and Godard evidently do.

Moments later, Michel shoots a cop who chases him on the highway, initiating an association between automobiles and death that will continue in Godard films as different as My Life to Live (1962), where the prostitute Nana dies alongside the car her psychopathic pimp has parked in front of the ironically named Restaurant des Studios; Pierrot le fou (1965), where the protagonists use a car for their transition from incipient social misfits to full-scale cultural outlaws; and most famously Weekend (1967), a crash-ridden extravaganza where the uproariously alienated main characters propel their battered convertible through a surrealistic traffic jam caused by a deadly accident complete with shattered corpses and blood-smeared pavement.

Godard depicts this Weekend episode in a heroically long tracking shot whose leisurely rhythm provides a conspicuously lyrical contrast with the grotesquerie of the images on display. Attraction and repulsion vie for first place in his implicit attitude-attraction toward the gleaming techno-possibilities of a mechanized civilization that gives us horrific road accidents and exhilarating road movies with equal munificence; and repulsion toward the money-driven forces of materialism, dehumanization, and spiritual decay of which the automobile is the most obvious symbol and ubiquitous embodiment. Godard’s political sensibility deplores the metaphysical degeneration induced by the ability of late-capitalist society to transform people into mind-numbed automatons. Yet his camera portrays its exanimate victims with the gentleness of one who understands and perhaps envies the escape they’ve made from a world that traps the mind in stultifying dead ends as readily as it frees the body for meaningless voyages to nowhere. Godard has been called a misanthrope and worse, and Weekend could be Exhibit A if he were prosecuted on this charge in a courtroom. Yet here as elsewhere in his work, he compassionately caresses the dead at the side of the road.

The uncanny mixture of eros and thanatos that courses through the car-conscious facet of Godard’s career reaches one of its most expressive peaks in the 1963 masterpiece Contempt, made less than a decade after his mother was killed in a Swiss traffic accident that appears to have made a searing and lasting impression on her second-eldest child, then in his mid twenties. Contempt met with critical skepticism and general-audience bewilderment when first released in the United States, where its producers (including Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine, no strangers to the mass-market exploitation of art-film cachet) had hoped to score a commercial success via the presences of Hollywood actor Jack Palance and French actress Brigitte Bardot, then at the peak of her international popularity. No aspect of the film was more pointedly censured than Godard’s decision to resolve its plot through an out-of-the-blue automobile accident that reviewers found at best an arbitrary trick, at worst a desperate act of narrative capriciousness by a lazy storyteller who had tired of his own tale and didn’t particularly care how he extricated himself from it. The movie’s reputation has skyrocketed since then-critic Colin MacCabe deemed it not just the finest film but “the greatest work of art produced in post-war Europe” (1) when it was reissued in 1996-and the critical obtuseness of early commentators is hard to fathom today. This is especially true of the scorn that greeted its car-crash climax, an instance of profoundly inventive and deeply moving cinema that stands with the most inspired moments in all of Godard’s work.

Contempt centers on Paul Javal, a French screenwriter (played by Michel Piccoli in one of his subtlest performances) who agrees to rewrite the screenplay of an Italian film production based on The Odyssey in order to pay for the Rome apartment where he and his wife (Bardot) want to settle down. Paul is troubled by taking a motion-picture assignment, since he sees himself as a serious writer more interested in high-flown theater than lowbrow movies. His intellectual side is soothed by the idea of working with legendary German filmmaker Fritz Lang, played in Contempt by Lang himself, one of Godard’s longtime heroes. But he also has to work with Jerry Prokosch, a Hollywood producer (Palance) who is less interested in Homeric poetry than in the naked women he gets to ogle when viewing the daily rushes. Jerry is instantly smitten with Paul’s wife, Camille, and flirts with her from their first moments together. When he invites the couple for a drink in his villa, Paul unhesitatingly agrees to let Camille ride in Jerry’s two-passenger roadster while he finds a taxi for the trip. Camille takes this as a sign of Paul’s decreasing commitment to their marriage-she gathers that he is indulging the producer’s lust as a way of currying his favor-and begins revealing her own anxieties and insecurities about their future.

The situation grows more complicated as it proceeds, especially when the threesome move to an exotic villa on Capri, where the Odyssey production is being filmed. Camille endures and even encourages Jerry’s continuing flirtation; Paul shows a casual romantic interest in Jerry’s attractive assistant; and Lang maintains a philosophical air while trying to keep his movie on a reasonably high plane despite Jerry’s crassly commercial interventions. At one point Paul places a loaded pistol into his pocket, clearly intended for use on Jerry and/or Camille if her growing contempt for him (hence the film’s title) erupts into a full-fledged refutation of their marriage. But fate intervenes before he can fire it, assuming that he could actually have brought himself to do so. Camille leaves Paul for a new life with Jerry; the producer’s luxurious Alfa-Romeo is crushed in a crash that kills him and Camille instantly, and Paul prepares for his departure from Capri as Lang films a sweeping ocean-side shot that concludes Contempt on a note of intricately blended lyricism, melancholy, and resignation.

After constructing a narrative set-up that could compete with most Hollywood stories for conventional romance and suspense-will Camille stay with Jerry? will Paul chase after them? will he regain his errant wife or murder his ruthless rival?-why did Godard choose not to resolve it in a conventional manner, opting instead for a climax that seems to deliberately court accusations of arbitrariness and caprice? To understand this aspect of Contempt one must comprehend the film as a whole, with special attention to at least two related moments that come before and after the scene in question.

An early clue is given at the film’s beginning, since Contempt starts with an evocation of movement-not a car traveling down a highway, but a camera traveling down a track, prefiguring the story’s ultimate resolution in its very first shot. This opening scene takes place at Cinecittà, the fabled Italian studio. A camera track stretches into the distance, perpendicular to the camera that is filming the image we see, and a visible camera is gradually wheeling along this track toward our vantage point. In this moment we have one of Godard’s most ingenious statements about the meaning(s) of movement in cinema. The tracking of the on-screen camera is steady in its course, carefully guided by the technicians at its controls, and imperturbably composed in its implicit attitude toward whatever vicissitudes of life may come within its purview. The cool, collected nature of this visible camera’s motion is underscored further by the unseen camera that is providing the image to us, as it calmly reframes the shot, adjusting its angle until the gazes of the two cameras meet. Our camera looks upward at a slight angle while the on-screen camera looks imperiously down at our own lens, as if inviting our eyes to worship at an altar of cinema. Considered in retrospect, every aspect of this shot establishes a brilliant counterpoint with the deadly convulsion that will erupt at the film’s climax.

An additional counterpoint comes from the voiceover narration that we hear during this scene: “‘The cinema,’ André Bazin said, ‘substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires.’ Contempt is the story of this world.” Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has noted that Bazin is probably not the actual source of this quotation, which most likely comes from a writer less prominent and influential than the renowned theorist, and that the quotation itself is probably inaccurate. Rosenbaum also notes, quite rightly, that this doesn’t matter. (2) The idea expressed by the quote is perfectly in sync with the philosophy of Contempt in particular and Godardian cinema in general. We watch the spectacle of Paul the wanderer, Camille the not-quite-fathomable wife, and Jerry the self-absorbed suitor because it brings to us a concatenation of notions and emotions that conform to the world of our own desires; and one of humanity’s most longstanding desires is to gain some shred of understanding vis-à-vis the deep-rooted tension between order and chaos in human experience.

Godard begins Contempt with a vision of cinema as movement as order, and he climaxes it with a vision of life as stasis as disorder. This may seem like an unhappy trajectory, yet the message underlying it is paradoxically reassuring, since the vision of Camille and Jerry in their wrecked automobile conveys a sense of calmness and restraint that counteracts the horror we might feel if we were watching the world that is rather than a world that corresponds to our desires. We never see the crash that kills them; we only hear it on the sound track (like the alleged Bazin quotation at the film’s beginning) while the written word “adieu,” penned by Camille in her farewell letter to Paul, fills the screen. When we do see the dead couple, they are in a state of peacefulness and repose. Their car stands motionless, crushed incongruously between the tail ends of two oil trucks that are as enormous as they are symbolic, suggesting that capitalism has taken a rage-filled revenge on Jerry for trying to choose the excitement of romance over the drone of money-spinning commerce. The lovers are equally still and silent, each lifeless head echoed by the empty hole it punched in the windshield during its catastrophic impact an instant earlier. The few traces of their scarlet-red blood are less jolting to our eyes than the matching orange-red of Jerry’s sweater, the Alfa-Romeo’s paint, and the fire extinguisher rudely protruding from one of the murderous trucks. Most tellingly, the couple’s faces are turned in opposite directions, reaffirming in death the many forms of miscommunication and noncommunication-linguistic, social, spiritual-that marred their relationship and would surely have doomed it if they had lived. Their final nonembrace is auto/erotic in more than one sense, and the grotesquerie of this cinematic pun is well suited to the futility of the romantic fling they vainly tried to pursue.

Godard is not mocking this unhappy pair, however. He is mourning them. In his book The Lives of a Cell, biologist Lewis Thomas observes that although everything in the world dies, plants do it so gracefully that we hardly think of the process as death. Something similar happens with animals, he adds, since they have “an instinct for performing death alone, hidden,” dying within the reach of human eyes so infrequently that we feel a “queer shock” when we pass a huddled piece of roadkill on a highway. (3) Human deaths are far more visible, in the movies at least, and Camille and Jerry are made quite a spectacle of, captured by a lens as imperious and implacable as that of the camera we saw in their story’s opening shot. Yet here as in other films, Godard chooses to caress the vulnerable corpses, comforting their invisible souls and cushioning our queer spectatorial shock with the gentle motion of his camera, the soothing texture of Georges Delerue’s rich musical refrain, and the calm precision of a mise en scène as eloquently arranged as a still life in a gradually shifting frame. Godard’s serene depiction of this chthonic scene echoes another of Thomas’s insights into the meanings and mechanisms of death: that dying “is not such a bad thing to do,” notwithstanding the aversion to it that we acquire through our attachment to the “long habit” of living. Thomas cites the experience of a nineteenth-century explorer saved by a companion just as a lion’s jaws had begun to crush his chest. Recalling the experience later, the near-victim was “amazed by the extraordinary sense of peace, calm, and total painlessness associated with being killed.” He concluded that the coming of death is as benign as it is inevitable, marked not by agony and anxiety but by quietude, equanimity, and an easeful “haze of tranquility” that envelopes consciousness as it gracefully glides into its opposite. (4)

Godard agrees in Contempt, which culminates in imagery that indeed corresponds to our desires-our desires for untroubled sleep, peaceful death, and the termination of all tension, which psychoanalysis identifies as a fundamental human drive. The climax of Contempt has been attacked as a deus ex machina device, but how could that time-honored trope be considered offensive in a film whose narrative makes constant reference to the Homeric world and whose themes are animated by thoughts of fate, destiny, and the enigmatic actions of ancient and modern gods? This profoundly moving scene is precisely a deus ex machina, and its deus has been selected with exquisite care. It is thanatos, the urge toward a calming death that drowns all care, sorrow, useless striving, and bitter hopefulness.

Confirming this god’s melancholy yet comforting message, Godard ends Contempt with a final scene at the Capri villa, where Paul is bidding farewell to Lang and his Odyssey dreams. Lang is filming a valedictory shot on the roof of the ocean-bathed building, and again we see an on-screen camera in motion, this time not coming assertively toward us but sliding elusively to the side. The camera providing our image moves as well, outpacing both Lang’s lens and the sword-wielding actor who is the ostensible focus of his shot. In mere moments the Contempt camera has found its true destination: the sea, blue and swelling beneath the sun, empty of detail yet teeming with significance as a deeply expressive symbol of the final, all-absorbing domain into which every road and river of life must flow.

“Silence!” cries Lang’s assistant, played by Godard himself. Fittingly, this word (with an echoing Italian translation called into the air) is the last sound of the film that Lang is making and the film that Godard has made. The sea and the screen will now be as silent as the ill-starred lovers whom a thundering thanatos ex cinema has ushered into a quieter, calmer realm.

Endnotes

  1. Colin MacCabe, Sight and Sound, 1996
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Critical Distance”, Chicago Reader – on Film, uploaded 5 Sept 1997, http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/0997/09057.html
  3. Lewis Thomas, “Death in the Open,” in The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), pp. 96-99
  4. Lewis Thomas, “The Long Habit,” in ibid., pp. 47-52

About The Author

David Sterritt is a New York-based critic, film professor, and author/editor of several film-related books.