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by will da shaman | december 8th, 2000

The Modernist Aesthetic of Le Mepris

Likewise the mise en scene is that of classical cinema: sweeping yet unobtrusive. However, Godard uses the Cinemascope ratio to adamantly separate characters at key moments - after all, Cinemascope is, according to Fritz Lang, only good for ‘snakes and coffins’. In one scene Paul sits down before Camille, stating that they must talk. Although the ratio is more than ample to get both of them in the frame at the same time, it pans back and forth between them, keeping them divided by a white lamp shade. Godard disconcerts the viewer by shooting the film as they would expect to see it, and then breaks convention subtly enough to avoid become verité, yet noticeably enough to be significant. Similarly in the opening scene between Paul and Camille, the image varies between a red, blue and clear filter. The red filter establishes a sense of eroticism or passion, before becoming more natural when the filter is removed. With a blue filter, the scene finally becomes cold and impersonal. By changing the hue of the film as such, Godard clearly dictates how the scene should be viewed, and yet the naturalness and intimacy of the action between the two characters prevents the viewer from becoming alienated.

Also worth noting is the soundtrack, which is largely based around an emotive phrase of cascading chords. This small sequence appears time and time again throughout the film, with the inevitable effect of stirring emotion in the viewer, much like the emotive soundtracks of classical Hollywood. However, Godard plays against this in a way much like Brecht’s alienation technique whereby the viewer becomes involved and then distanced. At the end of the film when Paul is left alone on the cliff side, the music comes up and the viewer is emotionally involved in his situation. However a slight jump cut also removes the soundtrack and he is left in silence, a device which emphasises his loneliness.

The cinephilia of Le Mepris is apparent across a range of references and allusions, concurrent with much of ‘the Nouvelle Vague - when European auteurs were planting cerebral mines on cinematic landscapes, and finding ways to combine the sensuality and lyricism of film with intellectual debate’6. Furthermore, Godard manages to comment on the commercialisation and the constant compromise of art cinema. Prokosch stands in front of a derelict cinema adorned with posters of Hitchcock’s Psycho and Hawk’s Hatari and notes that soon it will be knocked down to become a supermarket. And yet the cinema of Prokosch’s world sees film as a commodity where anything, even genius, can be bought and sold. ‘Whenever I hear the word culture, I bring out my chequebook’ he states, while Lang retorts that ‘Hitlerians used to say revolver instead of chequebook’. By comparing Prokosch with Hitler, he is compared with a man who also considered himself God-like and thus giving the film’s themes another thread.

Elsewhere, we hear Paul comment on how he ‘hates modern cinema’ and express a wish to return to the cinema of D W Griffith and Chaplin at United Artists. In fact Paul appears as the only character actively immersed in film, making references to Dean Martin, and sitting in the bath with hat and cigar like a villain from a film-noir. Nevertheless, he insists that theatre is his passion and that to work in cinema would be purely a financial concern, and ultimately one to rescue his marriage. By the end of the film we are left unsure as to Paul’s true motives. If his leading motivation was to save his marriage, why was he so encouraging towards letting Camille spend time alone with Prokosch. He comes across as a complex and multi-faceted character who is motivated by love, of both Camille and his work, yet also by financial concerns, alongside artistic and moral ideas as well. He departs the film unresolved, yet alive, unlike Prokosch and Camille who, in a great toungue-in-cheek Hollywood-style ending, die in a dramatic car-crash. This ending also echoes a line Camille reads earlier in the film from a book on Lang ‘Classical tragedy was negative in that it placed man as the helpless victim of fate as personified by the Gods’. In such Greek terms, the car crash is dramatically fitting as punishment for the two characters. In fact from the first scene such an ending is inevitable, where Paul admits that he loves Camille ‘totally, tragically’.

Godard is undoubtedly playing games through much of the picture, both with what we, as an audience, expect, and with the conflict between ideas and reality. I would argue that such game play, however, was not ‘mere indulgence’ but rather essential to the thematic and stylistic concerns of the film, which presume a certain level of knowledge in the viewer of the codes and conventions of cinema, yet do not make this a pre-requisite. A love, and almost obsession, for cinema pervades this film, across its narrative, style, technique and themes. And by contrasting the codes of cinema with that of the Odyssey, Godard succeeds in making the cinephilia almost universal by contrasting the filmmaker and the film he creates with God and the world he creates. Yet the film’s ultimate question is whether the world actually makes the filmmaker, and in turn his film, through acts of fate or drama - such as the collapse of a marriage - much like the question poised by Lang as to whether man, in fact, makes God.


Bardot is the Beauty in Brainy Contempt - Edward Guthmann in San Francisco Chronicle (August 15th 1997)

For Ever Goddard - Richard Corliss in Time Magazine (August 4th 1997)

Friedrich Nietzsche - Maxims and Arrows (Twilight of the Idols 1889, Hazell Watson & Viney, London)

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (9th September 1997)

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