Jean-Luc Godard ’s Le Mépris has many admirers, and a restored print of it gets star billing in the BFI’s current season devoted to the director. Certainly it offers some fine quirky moments and angles, but it seems too distracted and awkward to count among Godard’s best films. He is too far away from his movie home. But then he was the one who chose to wander. He knew what he was doing even when it didn’t quite work, and it remains true that no one else can create the effect of thinking on film as he does. Le Mépris appeared in 1963, the same year as Le Petit Soldat and a year before Bande à part. Breathless and Vivre sa vie were earlier, 1960 and 1962 respectively.
The film opens with an intimate introduction to what isn’t quite the cinema. A young woman walks towards us, reading some notes she holds in her hand. She is accompanied by a film crew. The camera is on tracks leading down the right-hand side of the screen from back to front. The cameraman sits behind it, and the camera, at first seen sideways, finally leaves the woman and fills the screen, before turning to focus on us, as if we were the subject of the film. There is also a man holding a microphone in the air above the woman, and various assistants fill out the team. We don’t know yet that we are in Cinecittà, and the credits are given to us in a curiously informal way, spoken in voiceover, not printed. ‘It’s based on a novel by Alberto Moravia. There are Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance … And also Fritz Lang … The images are by Raoul Coutard … It’s a film by Jean-Luc Godard.’ Then we do get a bit of text to read, from André Bazin, telling us that films create a world ‘more in accordance with our desires’ than with reality. The text continues after the quotation: ‘This is the story of this world.’ Or the history, if we take the word in its other sense.
It’s a very gloomy version of the story, though, and all the gloomier for being shot in bright colour and ample CinemaScope. There’s too much light and space for comfort, the humans are lost in these vacant elements. And the film reminds us that desires can be nastier and messier than reality as well as more romantic. Here they almost all have to do with money and power, and a desperate inability to see anything straight. When Brigitte Bardot, as the sulky beautiful wife of Michel Piccoli, the writer who may or may not work on the film within the film, tells her husband she despises him, cueing us in to our title, we realise she has found the word she has been looking for during the last 45 minutes of film. A good word, and once she’s got it she keeps repeating it. They have been quarrelling in their half-finished Rome apartment – whether they can afford the place or not is part of the world of desire – and for the whole long sequence neither of them is able to do anything except look moody and pretend things between them aren’t quite as bad as they are. It must be the most boring and ill-organised marital dispute in the history of film: a masterpiece of representation if realism is your only criterion.
It seems that Bardot really didn’t know the name for her feeling until that late moment, and probably Piccoli wouldn’t have attributed it to her either. It’s harsh and final, and Godard’s title matches that of the Moravia novel: Il Disprezzo. But both of them know exactly what he has done that changed everything between them. Nothing much apparently. When Jack Palance, as the bullying film producer, offers Bardot a lift from Cinecittà to his villa, telling Piccoli to get a taxi, the writer doesn’t protest. He’s not selling his wife to the man and she doesn’t think he is. But she understands intuitively that he’s ready for any act of squalid subservience, even if it’s only a gesture. And when, much later in the film, Piccoli offers his reinterpretation of the story of the Odyssey – the hero and Penelope were on bad terms even before he left for the Trojan War because he was too political and unmanly, literally ‘because of his excessive prudence’ – the allegory of his own situation could hardly be clearer or cruder.
So Palance was right from the start. Piccoli would do as he was told because he had a beautiful wife – such things are expensive. But then perhaps she wouldn’t have despised him if he had been more honest about his need – even if he had seriously peddled her to the producer. She does take off with Palance at the end. In this context the Bazin quotation looks almost satirical, and mere reality becomes an ideal. This is what Fritz Lang keeps claiming in relation to the movie they are shooting, a version of the Odyssey. Palance, grinning like an ape at the sight of a nude woman on screen, says: ‘I like gods. I know exactly how they feel.’ Lang says Palance doesn’t know anything of the kind, because Greek gods represent things as they are, beyond the manipulative reach of humans. It would be too sententious to apply this thought heavily to the end of the film when Palance and Bardot are dead, his sports car having crashed into a large truck, but Godard would want us at least to consider the implication: the power of money can’t control luck or redeem carelessness.
In his 1978 conversations in Montreal – Timothy Barnard’s excellent translation of the resulting book was published in 2014 – Godard has interesting things to say about Le Mépris, and many of his films. He showed it alongside Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Truffaut’s Day for Night, and speaks eloquently about money and film. ‘To control the money,’ he says, is ‘to control the time.’ In his view, the Fritz Lang of the movie, who in reality had resisted Goebbels and left Germany, becomes ‘someone who obeyed’, because he needed to follow the American funding. ‘At the same time it’s quite touching, because he agreed to pretend to make a film he never would have made.’ The impossible film, that is, which would marry his talents to Palance’s brutal whimsy. Godard insists that Palance is a dilettante with money, not ‘a real film producer’, and Lang says the same thing in the film. Lang also calls Palance a dictator, not a term he would use lightly outside the world of desire.
And yet in the story Godard is talking about his own desires – ‘What I wanted was money and the power to spend it how I like.’ He was not the hapless director but the would-be potent producer. His liberty was confined, though, and he can be rueful about the fact – this is why the result in Le Mépris is uncertain rather than unpleasant. This was to be his ‘big film’, he said: ‘It was the only time I had the impression of being able to make a big film on a big budget.’ Just an impression, though: ‘In fact, it was a small budget, because all the money went to Brigitte Bardot, Fritz Lang and … Jack Palance.’ What was left was ‘a lot of money, but … not a huge sum for a big production’.
So in this sense Godard is also represented in the film by Piccoli, the playwright who is a movie fan, lost among symbols of an expensive artform: a decaying Cinecittà, posters for new and recent films (Hatari!, Psycho, Viaggio in Italia), his memories of Rio Bravo and Some Came Running. This is a portrait that improves with time: Michel Piccoli in one of his very early films wants to look like Dean Martin, complete with porkpie hat and cigar.
The film acts out something like the opposite of a revelation. Its inhabitants are stranded in a big movie, but they don’t know what a big movie is. Nor does the director; he only knows how we imagine it. Le Mépris ‘can’t give you an idea of what cinema is’, Godard says, and he reproaches Truffaut for having just this ambition. ‘What it can give you, and this is what I tried to do, was an idea of a few film characters.’ It can’t give more, Godard says, and no film can, because films always leave things out. The question is whether we understand or even notice the omission. With luck we do. ‘One can feel,’ Stanley Cavell says, ‘that there is always a camera left out of the picture: the one working now.’ Godard’s version of this idea concerns actors: ‘Of course, there is a scene missing. It’s the principal scene in every film, which is: “Why hire a certain person?”’ The double answer to the question ‘Why hire Brigitte Bardot?’, for example, is that she brought him the money and the producer, and that she was Brigitte Bardot, the person whose body and gestures and expressions created particular meanings on screen. It wouldn’t have been the same if another actress, Danielle Darrieux, for example, or Michelle Morgan, had been reading a book on Fritz Lang in the bathtub.