Friday, December 12, 2008


#45 in the 1000 greatest films of all time

This marks the 4th film I've seen by Jean Luc Godard. Many of my friends swear by him, but frankly I'd never understood why. I'd appreciated "Le Petit Soldat." It was filmed in a hand-held documentary style, and the piano score was appropriately minimalist. "Breathless," on the other hand, certainly didn't leave me breathless, and I could barely sit through "La Chinoise."

I picked up "Contempt" several months ago on a friend's suggestion, but it was almost immediately buried by the incessantly growing pile of acquisitions from the New York Public Library. I'd nearly forgotten about it when it unexpectedly floated to the top one evening this week. It was already too late to practice my drums, and my mind was tired from studying. It was in this dubious state that I began "Contempt."

From the opening credits, I knew that I had entered an entirely different world from that which I'd come to expect from Godard. The film begins with a long static shot of a crew filming a tracking shot of a woman slowly walking through what appears to be an abandoned film lot. Our perspective situates us at the end of the track, and while we watch the crew and actress inch towards us, a narrator speaks the opening credits (the credits never appear on the screen in print). It's a deliberate, thoughtful, and layered scene that lets us savor its novelty while contemplating its meta-film ironies.

At the end of the credits, the narrator tells us that Andre Bezin once said that "The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires." The scene then shifts to a slow tracking shot of a naked Briggit Bardot laying face down on her bed, bathed in a New Orleans red haze, sequentially asking her lover if he likes her various body parts (from the toes up). At this point, anyone attracted to the female form will hastily attempt to extrapolate the content of the film after juxtaposing the sumptuous view with Bezin's quote.

It wasn't long before I realized that this was not some magical world where all of my dreams came true. The world of "Contempt" is a hopeless and tragic world. This pessimistic philosophy, that contends that deep down we desire suffering and misery, has cropped up in a number of films since this, from Bergman's intimately epic "Scenes from a Marriage" and "Saraband" to the Wachowski brother's pop-culture phenomenon "The Matrix:"

"Contempt's" score consists of one single piece of music, replayed intermittently (and often unexpectedly) throughout the film. It's an unabashedly tragic piece, something you would expect during a sappy scene of a Hollywood romance. Its incessant repetition, however, transforms the unoriginal theme into a meditative mantra. It really drives home the film's philosophical bent.

The considered, deliberate pacing, Tarkovian cinematography, and layered narrative convinced me that behind the camera lay one of film's rare geniuses. I'll say nothing more about the plot; it's simply something you'll have to experience on your own. As for the many more beautifully composed shots in the film, I'll save them for my coming video essay.

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