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by rich swintice | january 28th, 2000

The Cinephilia of Le Mepris

’It is no longer the presence of God, but the absence of God that is reassuring man’ claims Fritz Lang in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Le Mepris. In a film that considers the idea of the filmmaker as God, the viewer is aware of his presence, unlike conventional cinema where the filmmaker is absent, a ‘reality’ that is arguably more ‘reassuring’. A key effect of the cinephilia of Le Mepris, coupled with the film-within-a-film retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, is that it makes us ever aware of mankind’s relationship with God, and that of the filmmaker with his film. Such concern with the techniques and conventions of cinema can be seen across much of the European cinema of the 1960s, from Felini’s 81/2 to Truffaut’s Day for Night, although it is particularly prescient in the films of Goddard: ‘all his films are, in a way, about filmmaking; he breaks the illusion of the fourth wall in order to communicate directly with the audience, usually in such an enigmatic way that he seems to be satirising the whole of communication’.

The idea of the filmmaker as God is seen by through the grotesque character of Jerry Prokosch, who claims ‘I like the Gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel’. In an attempt to pull Prokosch down to size, Fritz Lang reminds him, in an echo of Nietzsche2 ‘Gods have not created man, man has created God.’ Prokosch answers this with half-baked and misquoted philosophy read from a small book he carries, including the unintentionally ironic and self-abassing ‘the wise man does not try and impress others with his superiority’: ironic for this is exactly what Prokosch is trying to do, and self-abassing for in doing so he proves his lack of wisdom.

The film states its intentions from the earliest stage with a quote from Bazin: ‘the cinema substitutes a world that conforms to our ideas. Le Mepris is the story of that world.’ One of the functions of the film’s cinephilia is to question the notion of reality in cinema, and considers how far cinema goes to fulfilling our dreams or ideas. For example the writer, Paul, is told by the translator that he ‘dreams of a world like Homer’s. You want it to exist, but it doesn’t… maybe you’re right. But for film, dreams are not enough.’ In essence, this desire lays bare the essential conflict between Paul and Prokosch, who wants films with ‘real human beings, with real emotions’. Prokosch is unprepared to accept that films are to a large extent fantasy, and that even himself as a ‘real human being’ is unable to deal with ‘real emotions’ other than his child-like tantrum in the projection room. This tantrum reveals another example of the play-off between reality and fantasy; the argument is about the difference between the script and the visual actuality of Lang’s film, which is sweepingly artistic. Goddard’s stance would appear to agree with Lang’s, that ‘cinema replaces our gaze with a world in harmony with our desires’ (a line Goddard also uses in his film For Ever Mozart).

The relationship between cinema reality and the desires of its creators is most clear as Prokosch, Camille and Paul fall in to the story of the film they are making. Prokosch becomes Poseidon, Camille Penelope and Paul Odysseus. Prokosch states early in the film that he thinks that Penelope has been unfaithful, and before long Camille has indeed been unfaithful with him. Paul believes that Penelope does not love Odysseus - this is the reason why he left for so long on his Odyssey - shortly after Camille has told him that ‘all I know is I don’t love you… it disgusts me when you touch me.’ These parallels between reality and cinema (or literary) fantasy work to make the reality of Camille and Paul’s love seem more calculated. Their relationship seems to be one of rational, and although Paul does hit Camille, and she is almost crying at the end, their emotions are kept quite separate from their cold and logical discussions of love. Roger Ebert suggested that the parallels were not just between the film’s characters and that of the Odyssey, but also with Godard: ‘it is just as tempting to see the frustrated screenwriter as Godard,; the woman as Godard’s wife, Anna Karina, and the producer as a cross between Joseph E Levine and Carlo Ponti, who were both attached to the project’3 . In fact in an echo of Prokosch’s tantrum in the screening room, Ponti was similarly enraged at the first cut, when seeing the absence of Brigitte Bardot’s naked body. At his insistence Godard inserted the first scene where Bardot lies naked and asks Paul if he likes her eyes, breasts, legs ‘a catalogue that commercialises her body, just as Ponti demanded’4 .

Stylistically, Godard is well aware of the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema, and comfortable enough with them to be able to break the rules from time to time. For example, the narrative is completely linear with a clear beginning, middle and end, and yet the middle of the film is taken up with a 30 minute seemingly real time argument between Paul and Camille where ‘we see their relationship fracture frame by frame’5 . In classical Hollywood, such a scene would be deemed excessive, yet here it serves the purpose of mid-point and turning point of the film aptly. Similarly, the film’s montage is that of classic Hollywood, where the work of the editor is seamless and unnoticeable, serving to propel the action along. However, Godard plays with this again by inserting quick-cut flashbacks, such as when Camille is in Prokosch’s garden and recalls the events of that day. Unlike American cinema, where flashback is usually a complete scene, here it appears as a collection of recollections and impressions and as such creates an intensely personal perception of the events whereby Camille felt that her husband was trying to ‘pimp’ her off to the producer.

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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