Le Mépris (1963)

“I’ll tell you the story of Ramakrishna and his disciple. Ramakrishna was a Hindu wise man. And he had a disciple who had absolutely no faith in his teachings. So the disciple went off all by himself. Fifteen years later, he came back and said, “I have found the Way!” He told Ramakrishna, “Come, and I will show you.” Then he took Ramakrishna to a river. And the disciple went back and forth across the river, walking on water. “See?” he told Ramakrishna. “I can cross the river without getting wet! I have found the Way!” Then Ramakrishna said to him, “You’re a complete ass. With one rupee and a boat, I’ve been doing the same thing for years!””

‘Le Mépris’, directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1963, is a French drama starring Michel Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance and German director Fritz Lang. Piccoli plays Paul Javal, a playwright who have been tasked by American film producer Jeremy Prokosch, played by Palance, to draft a script for a movie version of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. Through the film we see Javal arguing with his wife Camille, played by Bardot, and following the filming of the film within a film as Lang, playing himself, directs. It’s a knotty film, and you get the feeling that layers of the narrative are drawn directly from Godard’s life. Like Fellini’s ‘8 ½’ and Truffaut’s ‘Day for Night’, this film emphasises the seediness and madness of filmmaking, although here Lang as a director is presented as a stable, controlled presence, whilst the lives of his crew are shown as fragile and chaotic, and ultimately tragic. There’s a sense of odyssey throughout that matches the subject matter of the internal film, the characters travel through Italy, with scenes taking place usually in impossibly picturesque locations. The environment of this film, and the way Godard places his characters within it, is key. The actors are dwarfed by the sea and the cliffs, and are contrasted with the statues of gods. This contrast is emphasised in the opening scene, apparently inserted in the movie to exploit Bardot’s status as a sex symbol, as the camera focuses on her naked, immobile body and she asks her husband his opinion on it. It’s a film about surface and landscape and stone.

Would I recommend it? It’s visually stunning, but lacks the humour or depth of Fellini and Truffaut, but perhaps watched in a double bill with ‘Day for Night’ you’d get more.

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