Contempt

Glen W. Norton, Cinema Scope No. 14 (March 2003): 48.

The recent Criterion Collection release of Le Mépris (Contempt) is light years ahead of the scant few other Godard films available on DVD, and not just because of the abundant array of bonus material. The original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is restored – a widescreen vs. full frame demonstration in the extras reveals just how much we were missing in the old VHS pan-and scan version. The digital transfer, supervised by Godard’s long-time cinematographer Raoul Coutard, restores the primary colours that were lost on VHS. And of course the film’s original soundtrack – a mix of English, French, Italian, and German vital to understanding the film’s theme of “translation” – is restored (the VHS version gave us the travesty of an English dub).

Robert Stam’s commentary track is informative, with well-timed academic explanations of elements like Godard’s use of “Brechtian principles” and “homage.” I don’t mind this sort of dry overlay as a didactic tool, but I much prefer more immediate and personal reactions that allow the commentator to watch along with us rather than present an already-written analysis. Of course, this would best be given not by a critic but Godard himself – but we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Disk two has six extra documentaries and interviews as well as the original theatrical trailer. Encounter with Fritz Lang, shot on location in Capri by Peter Fleischmann, includes an alternate screening room scene from Le Mépris, in which Jack Palance does not throw the film canister/discus! The differences between this take and the one eventually chosen give a revealing look at Godard’s use of improvisation. In the take he ultimately used, perhaps Godard didn’t know Palance was going to throw the canister! (Watch it again – Georgia Moll comes very close to having her head taken off.)

Le Parti des choses: Bardot et Godard reveals the typical early 60s version of Godard, dressed in his dark sport jacket, t-shirt, sunglasses, and felt hat, all so out of place in the Capri sun. Director Jacques Rozier tells us that Le Mépris is Godard’s “testimonial to the modern woman: illogical, disarming, capricious, exasperating, regal, mysterious” – ah, the days before political correctness. Rozier also directs Paparazzi, an examination of “a certain kind of press that has no manners” and how they hound Bardot during the shoot. Some great behind-the-scenes footage here, along with a humourous look at an out-of-sorts Godard shooing away some of the more persistent paparazzi.

In the interview Le Coup du mépris, Godard – still dressed the same only now with tie added – sits with a huge poster of Anna Karina behind him, speaking about film critics (“criticism isn’t an artistic creation”), the “failure” of Les Carabiniers (“an honest film about war”), and the studio politics behind showing Bardot’s ass (“I find it very good now, and I wouldn’t remove it”). Interview with Raoul Coutard gives some excellent insight into Godard’s day-to-day working methods and the difficulties of shooting in ‘Scope, but The Dinosaur and the Baby, a conversation between Godard and Lang, is the most revealing. The two sit at a desk, smoking up a storm. Lang is animated, excited, engrossed – at times he even shushes Godard, who remains respectful and perhaps a bit aloof.

What’s most interesting in this sparring match is the way it reveals their different outlooks toward filmmaking. In a wonderful section, Lang grabs a pen, drawing out in great detail how he would shoot someone entering a room. He would have his set designer place the door close to the desk, so as to not waste time. But Godard disagrees with this solution. For him the door must “exist” – if what he sees is no good, he simply finds another apartment. This is more than just the preference for location vs. studio shooting: it is a difference in philosophy. Godard starts with a documentary point of view, embracing the necessary spontaneity needed to capture what is already there; Lang instead begins with fiction and the exact idea of how he wants to tell it. For him everything serves the story, with nothing left to chance. This even applies to interviews, as we see in an epilogue which reveals just how much Lang had prepared for this “spontaneous” dialogue!

This DVD, a time capsule into 1963, is a must for any serious Godard fan. It sketches out a period when the nouvelle vague was still new, when Godard could still be shushed by his “elders.” Along with restoring Le Mépris to its original glory, it serves as witness to a transitional phase in Godard’s career, and allows for insight into the more mature and politically minded Godard to come.

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