Contempt

I want to say a few words about the job of a script-writer, if only to give a better understanding of my feelings at that time. As everyone knows, the script-writer is the one who—generally in collaboration with another script-writer and with the director—writes the script or scenario, that is, the canvas from which the film will later be taken. In this script, and according to the development of the action, the gestures and words of the actors and the various movements of the camera are minutely indicated, one by one. The script is, therefore, drama, mime, cinematographic technique, mise-en-scène, and direction, all at the same time. Now, although the scriptwriter's part in the film is of the first importance and comes immediately below that of the director, it remains always, for reasons inherent in the fashion in which the art of the cinema has hitherto developed, hopelessly subordinate and obscure. If, in fact, the arts are to be judged from the point of view of direct expression—and one does not really see how else they can be judged—the scriptwriter is an artist who, although he gives his best to the film, never has the comfort of knowing that he has expressed himself. And so, with all his creative work, he can be nothing more than a provider of suggestions and inventions, of technical, psychological and literary ideas; it is then the director's task to make use of this material according to his own genius and, in fact, to express himself.

—Alberto Moravia, Ghost at Noon

Contempt is not playing anywhere at the moment, and we can only hope that it will not disappear like Muriel, another casualty of the currently and locally fashionable anti-intellectualism where movies are concerned. Even in the most enlightened circles, however, the mere notion of Jean-Luc Godard directing a million-dollar international coproduction of Alberto Moravia's Ghost at Noon in Rome and Capri for Carlo Ponti and Joe Levine seemed the height of improbability from the very beginning. One might just as soon imagine Norman Mailer standing in for the late Robert Frost on the reviewing stand of JFK's inauguration, or Allen Ginsberg sitting on the speaker's dais at a benefit for the American Jewish Committee, or William Burroughs judging the Miss America Beauty Pageant at Atlantic City—events not exactly impossible, not entirely inconceivable, but somewhat ironically incongruous in the Godard-Levine manner. The casting for Contempt of Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, Georgia Moll, and Fritz Lang (sic) seemed equally strange, both chemically and culturally. A more plausible production setup for this Moravia property would have starred Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni and have been directed by Federico Fellini on the assumption that Vittorio De Sica had found the script deficient in folk flavor.

Once Contempt was completed, Levine was shocked to discover that he had a million-dollar art film on his hands with no publicity pegs on which to hang his carpetbag. Levine ordered Godard to add some nude scenes, then challenged the New York censors like the great civil libertarian he is, and finally released the film with a publicity campaign worthy of The Orgy at Lil's Place. The New York reviewers, ever sensitive to the nuances of press agentry, opened fire on Brigitte Bardot's backside. It strikes me that this is attacking Contempt at its least vulnerable point, since even if Miss Bardot were to be photographed au naturel fore and aft for a hundred minutes of willfully Warholian impassivity, the result would be infinitely more edifying, even for children, than the sickening mediocrity of Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, the anal analyses of the reviewers left little space for the story line of either the Moravia original or the Godard adaptation. The striking differences in the two versions reveal the director's intentions in a way few reviewers have even bothered to suggest.

As Moravia has written it, Ghost at Noon is a conjugal mystery story told from the point of view of Riccardo Molteni, an ex-film critic, practicing screenwriter, and aspiring playwright. Molteni begins his reflective narrative at the point at which he first felt the beginnings of an estrangement from his wife, Emilia. After two years of marriage, and immediately after beginning to work for a producer named Battista, Molteni is involved in a casually meaningful test of conjugal courage. After dining with Battista, Molteni and his wife accept the producer's invitation to a nightcap at his home. There is room for only two in Battista's red sports car, and Molteni is persuaded, in retrospect too easily, to follow Battista and Emilia in a taxi. Emilia is obviously reluctant to go without her husband, but Molteni insists.

With this tiny miscalculation begins the emotional disintegration of a marriage. For all his context-weaving sensibility, Molteni is unable to fathom the causes of his wife's contempt for him. Emilia is a comparatively primitive being, responding instinctively to ancient codes of strength and honor, and the passionate spirit of Molteni's marriage dies even as its literal obligations are fulfilled. For Moravia, who is more an essayist than a storyteller, sexuality and sensuality are the symbolic currencies of art, history, sociology, politics, and economics. Moltenfs membership in the Communist party, for example, can be traced back to a marital incident involving Emilia's longing for an apartment of her own, leading in turn to Molteni's going deeply into debt to obtain the apartment, and causing him to plunge so deeply into self-pity that he identifies his personal plight with cosmic injustice.

Moravia amplifies the theme of marital discord by introducing The Odyssey as the subject of script conferences involving Molteni, Battista, and a German director named Rheingold, who according to Moravia, "was not in the same class as the Pabsts and Langs." Battista wants to produce The Odyssey as a Levine-like Herculean spectacular. Rheingold prefers an interior Freudian interpretation through which Odysseus is motivated by conjugal repugnance to stay away from Penelope. Rheingold, it seems, had escaped Hitler and followed Freud from Vienna to Hollywood, where psychoanalysis is still taken seriously. Molteni-Moravia prefers the nobility of the Homeric original as filtered through Dante, but Molteni's great discovery is that Emilia would probably understand the interpretations of Battista and Rheingold better than his own. This is Moravia's one novelistic coup: Molteni comes to realize that he is an ignoble being with a noble vision, hence a divided man whom Emilia, with her primitive assumption of appearance as reality, could only misunderstand. The novel ends with two hallucinations, or dreams, in which Molteni imagines that he has effected a reconciliation with Emilia. He learns later that she was killed in an accident even more freakish and more gratuitous than the one Godard depicts on the screen. While sleeping in Battista's car, she snaps her neck in a minor collision, after which Battista drives on without noticing that she is dead.

Molteni's final elegy for Emilia is a striking piece of mise-en-scène:

"Driven on by longing for her and for places where I had last seen her, I made my way one day to the beach below the villa, where I had once come upon her lying naked and had had the illusion that I had kissed her. The beach was deserted; and as I came out through the masses of fallen rock with my eyes raised toward the smiling, blue expanse of the sea, the thought of The Odyssey came back into my mind, and of Ulysses and Penelope, and I said to myself that Emilia was now, like Ulysses and Penelope, in those great sea spaces, and was fixed for eternity in the shape which she had been clothed in life."

The transition from Alberto Moravia's Ghost at Noon to Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt is largely the transition from a first-person novel to a third-person film. Moravia's Riccardo Molteni is obviously close to Moravia himself, and Molteni's wife, Emilia, merely an extension of Moravia's sensibility, a sort of subjective correlative of what the novelist feels about sex in the life of an artist. However, Riccardo and Emilia are both Italian and, as such, are closer to earthy essentials than Godard's transplanted French couple, Paul and Camille Javal, represented with Gallic perverseness by Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot. Piccoli, grossly hirsute, to the point of parodying the virility many artists like to assume as the mark of their métier, is denied the nobly Homeric vision of Moravia's Molteni, and the audience does not see the problem through his eyes but, curiously enough, through Fritz Lang's. Ultimately Piccoli is crushed between the myth of Brigitte Bardot and the legend of Fritz Lang. Godard pays a high price for destroying Piccoli's character—nothing less, in fact, than the dramatic failure of the film. The fact that Jean-Luc Godard is a director less dramatic than dialectical—that is to say, concerned with the oppositions less of individuals than of ideas—can hardly appease the hunger of audiences for a hunk of the human condition.

Brigitte Bardot presents additional problems as a character, a star, and a myth. She and Piccoli together lack the explosive chemistry necessary for dramatic excitement even under the best conditions. Godard's inventive bits of business with the unfinished apartment only intensify the couple's alienation from their environment, and it is a strange environment indeed that Godard has postulated. Reality without realism seems to be his perennial paradox as he and his photographer, Raoul Coutard, take us on a tour of Rome and Capri, deliberately depopulated for purposes of abstraction. At times Miss Bardot seems to take her nude sun baths in an ancient world blissfully unconscious of the fears of furtive eroticism. Unfortunately, in her waking, walking moments BB is too aware of her feelings to evoke much sympathy in the audience. Godard even supplies her with an anecdote about Martin and the Ass he was forbidden to think about if he wanted his magic carpet to fly—the point being, naturally, that once the unthinkable becomes thinkable, it can never be unthinkable again. This is a good point for Godard to make, but not through Bardot. Her contempt becomes too calculated, her psychology too studied, her indifference too intransigent. Reconciliation is impossible almost by definition, and the audience shifts its sympathy to Piccoli, because he is at least trying to communicate.

Significantly, Godard has passed up the opportunities suggested by Moravia for an illusory reconciliation in the fabulously beautiful red and green grottoes/of Capri. That kind of Felliniesque fantasy has never appealed to Godard. The opening stunts of suffocation and levitation in 8 1/2 are clearly labeled: Fantasy—please suspend disbelief. Audiences find it easier to adjust to the conventions of fantasy when they are clearly labeled than when these conventions are compromised by the intrusion of fact into fiction. For example, Fellini would never have the real Fritz Lang speak to a fictional character played by Brigitte Bardot about a real person Lang refers to as our own BB, Bertolt Brecht, invoking not only Brecht's 1943 collaboration on the script of Lang's Hangmen Also Die but also the ascendancy of the myth of Bardot over the character of Camille.

This is the domain of the so-called "inside jokes" for which Godard is so frequently criticized. Godard has provided the usual billboards of Howard Hawks's Hatari!, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy, to which latter film Godard (and Resnais) owe a great deal of their conceptual montage of moving, turning, pointing, commenting statuary. Piccoli keeps his hat on in homage to Dean Martin in Some Came Running, and someone calls out "Vanina Vanini" in reference to Rossellini's film version of the Stendhal novel.

It is generally assumed by Godard's severest critics that he is merely plugging his friends with his references to movies. Some of the inside jokes in Contempt, however, are turned against both Godard and his colleagues on Cahiers du Cinema. When Bardot and Piccoli tell Lang how much they admired his Rancho Notorious with Marlene Dietrich, he tells them he prefers M. This is an anti-Cahiers position on Lang's own career, and Lang's description of Cinemascope as a process suitable for photographing snakes and funerals is aesthetically reactionary enough to make André Bazin roll over in his grave. Lang's kind words for Sam Goldwyn are the final confirmation that Godard has allowed Lang to speak for himself rather than as a mouthpiece for Godard. The effect of Lang's autonomy is to complete the degradation of Piccoli as a mere parrot of nouvelle vague attitudes, toward which Godard displays mixed emotions. When Piccoli announces that he is going to look at a movie to get some ideas for a script, Bardot asks him with rhetorical scorn why he doesn't think up his own ideas. Piccoli is not even allowed to challenge the vulgar conceptions of Jack Palance's ruthless American producer, Jeremy Prokosch, Lang lines up with Homer, Palance with commerce, and Piccoli becomes a feeble echo of the producer who has set out to humiliate him.

Palance is the one actor who got away from Godard, much as Steve Cochran got away from Antonioni in II Grido. The result is more interestingly ambiguous than either Godard or Antonioni had any idea of permitting. Godard wound up hating Palance as Antonioni wound up hating Cochran—and yet I think these runaway characterizations may suggest that at times the director is well advised, like the jockey on a high-spirited mount, to keep a loose rein on the talent at his disposal and let nature take its course. Palance's conception of Prokosch is closer to Rod Steiger's producer in The Big Knife than to Godard's conception of Moravia's Battista, Carlo Ponti, or Joe Levine. The main difference between Prokosch and Battista is that Prokosch sets out to debase Piccoli publicly, while Battista is concerned only with deceiving Molteni in the discreet Italian manner. If in Godard's conception Lang is pure greatness, Palance exudes raw power. Piccoli stands before Lang and Palance as a suppliant before two demigods, and before Bardot as a mistake before a myth.

We are not moved by what happens to the marriage of Bardot and Piccoli. We are not even particularly concerned with what happens to the ridiculous epic Palance wants Fritz Lang to direct (because only a German can understand Homer). The characters keep talking about Homer's classical cosmos of appearance as reality as opposed to our atomic universe under constantly anxious analysis, but the consciously tawdry players in the film-within-a-film indicate that the great Fritz is laboring on a potboiler.

Then, what is so moving about Contempt? Simply the spectacle of Fritz Lang completing a mediocre film with a noble vision in his mind and at the edge of his fingertips. Godard appears in the film as Lang's assistant, and he repeats Lang's instructions to the camera crew, as if in the bulky figure of this curious man who has always known how far to compromise in order to endure is hidden the real Homeric parable of Contempt. Mastroianni-Fellini in 8 1/2 is an artist who just happens to be a movie director, Lang in Contempt is a movie director who just happens to be an artist.

(Village Voice, January 28 and February 4, 1965 )