This December marks the 50th anniversary theater release of Jean-Luc Godard’s film, Le Mépris (Eng : Contempt). Based on the 1954 Italian novel Il disprezzo (A Ghost at Noon) by Alberto Moravia, Le Mépris was created as Godard’s commentary on the corrupting influence of the commercial movie industry in the production of motion pictures as an art form.
It tells the story of a struggling but talented novelist and playwright, Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) who is hired by an American film producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), to rewrite a script for a movie adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Javal is reluctant but, as an older man with a beautiful younger wife Camille (played by Brigitte Bardot), he is convinced that – without the money – he may lose his trophy bride. Javal accepts Prokosch’s offer to write the script.
Prokosch’s character is reminiscent of the character Stanley Shriner Hoff, another unscrupulous Hollywood studio boss, from the incredible 1955 film noir, The Big Knife by Robert Aldrich. The Big Knife also stars Jack Palance; however, Palance’s role in The Big Knife is that of the conscientious actor, Charlie Castle, rebelling against the Hollywood studio culture of the time. In Le Mépris, Palance’s role is reversed as Prokosch. The critique of Hollywood commercialism is also far more subtle. Instead of the masterfully-delivered orations of The Big Knife’s Stanley Shriner Hoff (played by Rod Steiger), Le Mépris’ Prokosch is more subdued. After one opening raving, he quietly asserts his dominance over those on the payroll, including legendary director Fritz Lang (played by himself).
In a very telling scene, Prokosch brings Lang, Javal and Javal’s wife Camille into a small screening room where they watch Lang’s long artistic shots of various statues of Greek gods. Eyes fixed on the screen, Prokosch says quietly, “I like gods. I know exactly how they feel.”
Le Mépris’ telling of Alberto Moravia’s story not only follows a married couple through the unraveling of their relationship, it also touches on how egotism, fear and the lust for becoming “somebody” makes a man an easy target for manipulations that can compromise even the most sacred of relationships.
While the drone of the movie may be lost on a contemporary audience, Godard’s subtle assault on the typical Hollywood commercial formula is undoubtedly intentional. Ironically, however, the creators feared that the movie lacked the necessary popular appeal to make it a box office success prompting them to include several luxuriant scenes of Brigitte Bardot nude.
50 years on, it appears that the fears of the film’s creators were not unfounded. Although Le Mépris has received consistent critical acclaim since its initial release, it seems Bardot’s bare behind has not been enough to keep such a nuanced film about the frustrations and banality of Post-modern life in circulation. Of course this comes as no surprise when Bardot’s backside is competing against regular television programming like Game of Thrones where naked breasts and behinds abound through incestuous love scenes book-ending beheadings, torture and gory attacks from the flesh-eating undead. The lack of commercial interest in Godard’s classic has forced even the Criterion Collection, which specializes in restoring and promoting classic foreign movies and art films, to discontinue printing Le Mépris on DVD. But determined film connoisseurs and Godard fans can still obtain copies on the web if they are prepared to pay upwards of $150. For those who can’t afford the market price, the DVD can still be obtained from many public libraries.