Monday, October 3, 2011

Sex and Desire on a Film Set in the Age of Auterism: Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt

Over the years there has been much said, praised, debated, misinterpreted, and altered when discussing what the French critics in Cahiers du Cinema once labeled as the "politique des auteurs". Believing that a film's director was the key voice and visionary behind a particular film, the auteur theory praised artistic distinction and power, thus creating an endless hegemonic structure over all film sets. In theory, a pantheon of greats could do as they wished. Unfortunately, if not given final cut, the director's pull decreased and was left at the mercy of the greedy, know-it-all studio execs with a hunch for what the public wanted. Too many cooks in the kitchen does not a good meal make. In his 1963 film Contempt (original French title: Le Mepris), a story very much about filmmaking, Jean-Luc Godard plays with the idea of power in the movie world in a delightfully sexy and kinetic way. A woman between two men, the lead heroine, married to a meek, humbled screenwriter, begins an affair with a ravishing, big shot American producer who orders her husband around. Has she fallen out of love with her spouse for his lack of power or for the Don Juan producer's position of strength? Godard crafts a film about desire for the new, the foreign, rather than one about respect for the old and familiar.

In the motion picture industry the role of the screenwriter is quite low on the creative totem pole. He writes (or in Contempt's case, adapts) a story for the screen and then sells his work to producers who will do with it as they wish. Throughout the course of filming, the screenwriter may be asked to do specific rewrites. If he refuses, someone else will be brought in to do them instead. The screenwriter is expendable. Paul, our screenwriter lead in Contempt, knows this all too well. Artistically castrated and at the mercy of Jerry, the arrogant American producer, Paul goes through each day yearning for his former "glory" days as a playwright and author of pulp crime novels. He hasn't adjusted well to not being in control (in his previous writing jobs, he had the creative power but less of a financial gain to show for it). Perhaps this is why, having given up and gone through each passing day as a lowly yes man, Paul has his beautiful, twenty-eight year old wife Camille take an intimate ride with Jerry early in the picture. He is giving her over to him as a sign of cowardice; Camille recognizes this moment and immediately changes her demeanor. The mystery of what occurs between her and Jerry throughout this car ride and their brief time spent together afterward haunts a large portion of the film.

It becomes obvious that Paul wants to have the control that Jerry possesses and surrenders his wife to express camaraderie. As Godard would ironically have it, Paul will lose the girl but not gain the power. When Camille eventually goes to this other man, Paul gains enough courage (and becomes more masculine?) to quit the production and go about working on the projects he truly believes in. Unfortunately, to gain this artistic freedom, Camille had to be removed from his life. The fact that he had her taken away unwillingly says much about his lack of knowing what he really wants. He either desires to be with Camille or to be Jerry's doppelganger. By the film's end, he is left with nothing.

Godard cast Brigitte Bardot, at least in part, for her international sex symbol status. His film makes this clear in her various scenes of undress — in some shots, she seems to be portrayed as an unobtainable naked angel from the heavens. Her character's inclusion gives the story a sense of lust and mystery, providing much of the necessary conflict for the film. Camille represents what both men want but neither can have. Paul constantly wants to please her and keep her happy while Jerry simply wants to bed and conquer his cheap screenwriter's wife. The politics of a film's production trickles down to the private lives of its makers. Viewers may be correct in  suspecting that Paul wants to or has had a fling with Jerry's noble translator/assistant, and this furthers the belief that Paul envies the man who signs his checks (one time quite literally on the assistant's bent over back).

The auteur theory was created to give credit where credit was due. In Contempt's film within a film, the director Fritz Lang plays himself as old, tired, and flustered. He is a director that does as Jerry tells him. One glance will pretty much tell you that his days of musical beds has long since passed. Camille's affection then becomes a prize to be wrestled over by a writer and a producer, a man out of his element versus a seasoned pro. The audience may personally feel that she is right for neither man, but one certainly deserves more empathy than the other. In Contempt, Godard presents a screenwriter as the tragic hero, the misguided lover, auteur theory be damned.

----- Erik Luers


  1. Erik,
    I've never found the Fritz Lang character (played by Fritz Lang) to be anything but dignified and articulate; someone who remains unsullied by the worldly desires (greed, ambition, jealousy) of the people who surround him. Moreover, he remains unmoved by either the attempts of the producer or writer to change his views on what THE ODYSSEY is about, or how it should be made into a film. It is with Lang too – let us not forget – that the film ends, as he continues his efforts to complete his work. (And Godard pays homage to Lang by playing his assistant in the film.) For these reasons, it's hard for me to see LE MÉPRIS as a celebration of the writer rather than the auteur – and not just Lang, but also Hawks (HATARI!), Hitchcock (PSYCHO) and Rossellini (VIAGGIO IN ITALIA), all of whom are referenced by the movie posters/marquees that litter the film.


  2. It can also be read as Godard's comment on the state of film. Jerry, the producer, can relate to gods because in the world of the New Wave auteurs, the power of the producer over cinema has been marginalized the same way the influence of god/religion no longer has the same hold on the modern world. In the end, the producer is dead and all that is left is Lang the auteur to continue the film.

    Last week we discussed the notion of authenticity as described in existentialism . It would be an interesting question to ask which of these characters are living their lives authentically. Is Camille's contempt for Paul due to the way that he is inauthentically living his life by compromising his beliefs in order to get a job?