Le mépris. That’s contempt in French, and that’s the rising feeling that Camille (Brigitte Bardot) has for her writer boyfriend Paul (Michel Piccoli) during the time he’s summoned to Rome’s Cinecittà film studios and the stunning island of Capri to help Austrian-born Hollywood director Fritz Lang (playing himself) and coarse American producer Prokosch (Jack Palance) improve their movie version of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’.
Much of the film gives us Camille and Paul’s disintegrating relationship as he’s simultaneously seduced and repelled by the world of filmmaking. You feel that same seduction and repulsion in Godard too: why else cast one of your all-time heroes (Lang) but pitch him against a dumb executive Prokosch (who has the brilliant line, ‘When I hear the word culture, I bring out my chequebook,’ unwittingly misquoting Joseph Goebbels)?
We’ve become used to films that knowingly wink at us about the process of filmmaking and play out on the fuzzy borders of the story and its making: think of Charlie Kaufman or Quentin Tarantino’s films. Godard remains the modern master of this approach. But his films are far less easy to unpick. It’s tough to know what’s sincere and what’s not: wry observation and heartfelt emotion are totally entangled. Morover, it would be wrong to see ‘Le Mépris’ as just a comment on filmmaking, or even a satire of it. It also shows Godard and his collaborators – especially cinematographer Raoul Coutard, composer Georges Delerue and editor Agnès Guillemot – at the height of their powers, creating scenes and moments of extraordinary visual power, suggestion and beauty. Like Camille and Paul’s love-hate relationship, it’s the ultimate testament to Godard’s complicated relationship with his art.