The Sunday Night Movie: Contempt (1963)

Things changed up for this week’s Movie: instead of screening a classic Sunday night at home, my boyfriend, a friend and I caught a 35mm screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt at the Harvard Film Archive on Friday.  It’s actually not the first time I’ve had the good fortune to see this film screened theatrically; I caught a revival screening at Athens, OH’s Athena Cinema some five or six years ago, which was attended by myself and only a handful of other people, two of whom being a pair of bewildered (and noticeably frustrated) undergraduates.  Not surprisingly, the audience last night at the HFA was larger—the screening room looked to be almost sold out—and a good deal more receptive. 

I don’t think I’d seen Contempt since that screening in Athens.  Turns out it’s still a masterpiece.  Breathless may be cooler and sexier, Les Carabiniers and Weekend more pointed politically, but Contempt strikes me as probably Godard’s most beautiful movie, filmed on location in Rome and on Capri and lushly photographed in Technicolor by Raoul Coutard.  Georges Delerue’s plangent score is so good that one doesn’t even mind hearing Godard repeat the same fourteen-bar phrase approximately ten times in the course of thirty minutes.  It also may be the most accessible of any of Godard’s films, or at least the one in which his desire to experiment with style, editing, sound, dialogue, story and ideas—in other words, to re-order the very elements of narrative cinema—is done so elegantly and cogently that it never feels like he’s straining to make his points or to be difficult for the sake of difficulty.  Call it a perfect synchronicity of form and content.  In his very good piece on the film from 1997, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that Contempt may be seen as an example of how Godard “fails as a storyteller, as an entertainer, as an essayist, and as a film critic in the very process of succeeding as an artist”—which is one way of saying that Godard’s genius lay in taking the pieces of cinema apart, finding a new way to put them together, and making the whole thing greater than the sum of its parts.  There may be films that tell the story of a dying marriage more movingly, or that make a point about the struggle to reconcile art with money more sharply, or that deconstruct the grammar of film more daringly, or that are funnier in their send-up of the greed of the film industry, but I can think of almost none that so perfectly fuses these elements into a single whole, and I can’t really think of any other filmmaker but Godard who would have been able to do so.  Contempt very well may be the summa of the European art film’s golden age.     

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