It's the first scene. The all-seeing camera eye focuses on... me. As viewer, I am made the subject of the lens of the Cyclops. I am placed at the epicentre of film itself.
Will I be the tragic hero of this version of the Odyssey? Only if I can forget that I am, at all moments, the object of the gaze. If I can forget that as I watch film, film watches me. If I can forget film itself, a gesture that Jean-Luc Godard is always willing to begin, but is ultimately unwilling to complete. Which is why he keeps coming back for more. And so do we, as viewers, even knowing what Godard is likely to give us...
End of film. Silenzio. Fin.
Le Mépris (1963) is a difficult but hilarious indictment of the commercial film process, featuring one of the longest takes of a couple arguing ever committed to celluloid. It lasts over 35 minutes, shot with trademark tracking camera movements, isolating the characters within the confines of their apartment. Red seeps from the sofa and the towels, leaving the couple bloodless and scarcely able to express themselves. Bardot switches from blonde to brunette, from naked to clothed as her temperament changes. She wishes Piccoli was playing a more virile man, the traditional hero of a commercial film, able to pay for apartments and make decisions. Instead he smokes in the bathtub in mere emulation of his filmic heroes.
Piccoli (surprisingly, in his first role) plays Paul, her husband, a would-be screenwriter. He pimps her out to his producer, perhaps even without realising he's doing it. And this is much worse than if he was doing so willingly, because then the decision might later be rethought, revoked. Instead the impetus is a direct result of his very nature. This being the case, she can no longer love him. Her insight astounds us with its simple logic; like all tragic turns, it is irrefutable.
How brilliant to have a film start with Bardot naked (the studio insisted) only to have various arbitrary colour imposed on the frame to dislocate our viewing, to ensure we know we are watching a product of some assembly process. To parallel this, Bardot's dialogue rebuilds herself from constituent parts (heel, ankle, buttock, breast), reclaiming the very language of male hegemony. Later the linguistic play between German, English, French, and Italian accelerates into confusion. (Even better with subtitles, but beware the Criterion edition which ruined this aspect.)
The camera moves relentlessly, the characters move nervously, everything moves towards some unseen but inexorable destination. "Motion picture, it is called", as Lang reminds us. Meanings collide and slip over one another, like some Alpha male Romeo and a mobile container for fuel. And isn't the substrate of film itself composed of nitrocellulose and camphor? As hot as a Capri summer and twice as flammable.
The second nude form is a swimming female, projected for the fictional producer (Jack Palance, perfectly cast, out of control) to ogle. He reverts before our eyes to some creature of pure desire in what is but one uncomfortable scene among many. But how much less comfortable must the projection room have been when Le Mépris itself was presented for approval to some mirror-form Palance, a producer who has the misfortune to exist in the "real" world? One can only imagine that film reels were spilled, those with money called for more sex, and certain statements about art versus finance were voiced. Real life has all the best clichés.
Bardot pretends passivity, saying she'll follow her man's lead, as no doubt some part of her wishes to. Her husband takes her for the dumb blonde and wishes her to stay that way. But she's the clever one, totally outclassing the males around her, not threatened by any woman -- though she might pretend to be, just for a moment, to suit her goals. She emasculates her husband by stealing his bullets, a feat achieved in voice-over only. (We are not required to bear witness to such an intimate embarrassment.) Stripped of commercial cinema's primary tool of action, he is condemned to wander aimlessly, a silent witness to kisses he cannot control, to desires he cannot understand. And, worse, to films he cannot take part in.
In case we get too comfortable with a feminist reading, there's Bardot's final shot, the red seeping from a bloodless character once again. Some sort of a metaphorical play with the Odyssey, a tragic end? But no, we've already been reminded of the futility of that reading, from none other than Fritz Lang who, in a major acting coup, plays himself. Tragedy cannot be reduced to metaphor. Tragedy actually is a thing in the world.
But doesn't it all look wonderful in CinemaScope? No, rewind. I meant to say: "CinemaScope is good only for snakes and coffins". And so in this film Godard gives us both. Shots so wide they can only be filled by distant figures, breakdowns in communication, death. The screen is too wide for artifice; the real world infiltrates the edges.
As a blonde, Bardot plays a perfect Camille. If anyone doubted she could act, this is the film to convert them. In a wig, Bardot plays a perfect Anna Karina, fed lines her double uttered in "the real world". This film reflects everything within its hall of mirrors, even though the glass is missing from the magic door, the door to the private realm, to which cameras are normally denied access. Because we are in a film without the usual limits, we can open this door quite easily; transgress the normative boundaries of social space. Or, if we dare, we can simply step right through the frame without opening it.
Godard's genius is, first, to demonstrate this explicitly (Paul in his apartment). And, second, to show us that this new filmic intimacy won't make any difference. Film does not provide us with a magic portal to anywhere; despite all attempts, these are still characters. The value is in the trying, something few directors come close to doing. And that is why Le Mépris is a truly great film. If Godard had not made these futile attempts, we would not realise with the same clarity the limitations within which filmic practice operates.
In cinema all effects are a temporary respite. Eventually the celluloid runs out. We come to the end of the script, or the producers stop funding. But remember this from Lang: death is no resolution. Silence lasts only until the next clap-board. We can always return to an earlier reel. The tension between the inevitable end and the infinite imaginative resource that is film creates the true potential of cinema. That is why the last moments of this movie are so powerful.
Silenzio. (It's Godard himself, playing the assistant, who says it.)
Fin. (Up in large letters on the screen.)
(And again, we can if we wish, for it's our actions controlling the play...) Rewind.