The most interesting thing about Contempt is the speculation about what Jean-Luc Godard’s career might have been if he had continued working in the same vein. While it is not completely different from the rest of his work (it could have been made by no one else) Contempt expresses a lush, literary, dare I say entertaining side to his personality that might well have led him in a very different direction had he followed those inclinations.
Of course, such speculation immediately collides with the divisiveness produced by Godard’s bad-boy reputation. The anti-Godardians would snort, “Who cares what he might have done? Look at the incompetent way he wastes 30 minutes going over the same material repeatedly in a seemingly endless sequence in an apartment.” Never mind that those 30 minutes provide a brilliant, incisive depiction of a marriage disintegrating before our eyes well beyond the perception and skill of facile, academic competence.
On the other hand, Godard’s self-hating bourgeois acolytes, who proclaim an abortion like Film Socialisme a masterpiece without explaining what is so masterful about it, would scorn the very idea of entertainment. If this one example of Godard working on a big budget, with a relatively developed script pleases, that is a grim irony, because the real purpose of the film is to make us aware of the exploitive realities of film making particularly and capitalist society generally. (The diddling hipster’s variation on this politically correct reaction is that Godard, Michel Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance and Fritz Lang, who appears as the director of the film within the film, are colluding in yet another bit of gamy camp. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. Yawn.)
All of which is to miss Contempt at its face value, to enjoy or criticize it as you see fit, to experience it for itself, not as a token in an ideological exposition. It is a very far from perfect film, but it is also a sleek, sexy, surprisingly beautiful exploration of a situation and environment both familiar and strange. You can, for example, criticize Jack Palance’s performance as the caricatured producer Prokosch. Or you can praise it for its stinging, if exaggerated, accuracy. In either case, it is difficult to dispute the character’s effectiveness purely in dramatic terms. Similarly, Bardot may have been cast in order to cash in on her sex kitten reputation, but that knowledge does not detract from her stunning presence simply as an image.
In short, the vagaries, attractions, contradictions and power of cinema exceed the self-limiting positions of both Godard’s critics and supporters. One is tempted to say “Of course,” but to do so is to express an equally reductive, unthinking reaction. Better for anyone staking a claim to critical seriousness to develop a thoughtful, personal opinion. Suffice to say that Contempt can be a very enjoyable experience if you relax, throw off the blinkers and stretch out to bask in its sunny, jagged distinction.