French Film: Le Mépris
Jean-luc Godard’s le Mépris
Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mépris was one of the first cinematic works to focus on the beauty of the filmmaking process itself, and not to divert attention onto the polished finished product that eventually appears on our screens. In this way, it encapsulates the message of the French Nouvelle Vague, which sought to dispel the belief that cinema was simply an inferior version of literature, and to demonstrate the artistry that goes into uniting the various different elements of a film.
Le Mépris follows screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), and his dealings with American film producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), who wants to work with him on a new adaptation of The Odyssey. The relationship between the two men becomes complicated when Prokosch invites Paul and his beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) for a drink at his villa. He offers to give Camille a lift in his car, but she refuses, looking to her husband imploringly to support her in her refusal. However, he ignores her, saying that she should go, and that he will join them shortly. When he finally arrives at the villa, it seems that an almost imperceptible rift has begun to form between him and his wife. Throughout the film, this divide widens, as Camille’s attitude towards Paul fills with contempt (le mépris), becoming more and more dismissive until one is certain that their marriage cannot survive.
This dramatic change in their relationship all stems from that off-screen journey to the villa at the beginning of the film, the events of which are completely unknown to us. This creates the sense that the crux of the storyline, the scene in which the seed of Camille’s contempt is sewn, nestles unseen within the fabric of the film, hidden in its very machinery. Through keeping this climactic moment off the screen, Godard draws his audience’s attention to the film as a process full of separate elements, reminding us that it is not just the seamless series of images. He also makes the physical operations of filmmaking very visible to the viewer, through following the production of The Odyssey from location to location, filming the cameramen, the actors and the directors as they prepare to create a scene. In this way, Godard defetishizes cinema, stripping away the illusion of perfection and fantasy which pervades many popular films.
Le Mépris is therefore the perfect film to watch if you are looking for a new, more immersive way of engaging with cinema.