If Godard could be reduced to a single genius idea—essential to his filmmaking if obviously not the whole story—it might go something like this: To love cinema is to love life. He is the original movie geek, swaddling his films in adoring reference, and embracing, pushing, reveling in the plasticity of pop. Even his politics work best when set against cool haircuts and jump cuts.
So why, then, isn’t Godard’s most gorgeously fabricated movie—his most movieish movie—not considered his towering achievement? Contempt, as magnificent as any melodrama produced by the studio system the director loved, is thought of as his square picture, his concession to narrative. Mind you, it’s a narrative about filmmaking: a rapacious Hollywood producer (Jack Palance) trying to mount The Odyssey in Capri; an aging German director (Fritz Lang, playing himself) resisting the moneyman; and a sellout screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) losing his soul and his alienated wife (Brigitte Bardot) in the process. Still, that was enough for Godard to dismiss his own achievement over the years as “two-penny” and “normal.”
Allow him to be mistaken. Contempt is the only one of Godard’s films in which his sequences have enough room to become spells, boosted on the achingly sad strains of Georges Delerue’s seesawing orchestral score. Piccoli’s screenwriter is Godard’s most honest indictment of his treasured fake world, a hired gun too blind to see his own ruination. And by film’s end—“Silencio!”—Godard has finally dared to get serious, achieving not mock pathos but a perfect tragedy.
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