Le Mépris (1963) | Is Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave sensation an arthouse triumph or just an aching bore?

Le Mépris (1963)Released in 1963, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris oozed 1960s style and sexuality, mainly due to the bare buttocks of its seductive star, Brigitte Bardot.

One of the New Wave’s masterpieces and a landmark in world cinema, the lauded French drama is back in cinemas in the UK, and is the centrepiece of a major retrospective of the director’s 60-year career at the BFI Southbank in London. It is also one of the key highlights in StudioCanal’s five-disc Blu-ray collection being released on 1 February.

But does it hold up 52 years on?

More Bold! More Brazen! And Much, Much More Bardot!
French screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is offered a commission to rewrite a stylised adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey being directed by the legendary Fritz Lang (playing himself). But he’s soon at war with his beautiful wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), who mistakenly believes he is using her to get friendly with the film’s brash American Jeremy Prokosh (Jack Palance)…

Based on the novel A Ghost at Noon by Italian writer Alberto Moravia (The Conformist), Le Mépris was a huge success in France – and much of that was due to Bardot’s nude scenes which were added in at the behest of the film’s producers, Joseph Levine and Carlo Ponti. Godard had originally wanted Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra, but Ponti wanted his wife Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. In end, however, Godard got the right mix right with sex kitten Brigitte Bardot and French actor Michel Piccoli.

Le Mépris (1963)

Making great use of the location settings (firstly Rome, then the island of Capri), Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard perfectly capture (in Scope) the primary colours of the Pop Art movement that was big in the day. With its radical improvised set-ups and repetitive use of Georges Delerue’s mournful soundtrack, this sumptuously dressed marriage-in-crisis melodrama certainly gave audiences something they had never seen before. But this monumental arthouse experiment is also an aching bore for those to don’t ‘get’ the caustic in-jokes and movie-making references.

Le Mépris (1963)

A famous quote by film pioneer Louis Lumiere opens Godard’s artfest: ‘Cinema is an invention without future…’ And this is what drives most of th dialogue, which comes off like an internal rant by the director, who uses the film to expound his New Wave theories. While cinephiles may cream their pants over Le Mépris being a sleekly seductive film about film-making, newbies will be left wondering what the hell is going on as Piccoli and Bardot bicker for what seems like an eternity (actually 30-minutes) in a sparse modernist apartment in Rome.

Le Mépris (1963)

The French film fans I watched the StudioCanal release with (which had issues with the subtitles at one point), laughingly described the film as ‘L’Avventura in colour’. Which it sort of is. But it also shares its arthouse DNA with Antonioni’s despairing romance, L’Eclisse, which came the year before. Only instead of static shots of the characters moving ever so slowly in a monochrome suburban Rome, we have Godard’s slow tracking shots as his characters spew dialogue like ‘When I hear the word culture I reach for my chequebook’. So, by the time the film finally moved to the blue-green waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea for the Capri scenes, my viewing companions were queuing up to drown themselves.

Le Mépris (1963)

Thankfully the stunning scenery and architecture (notably the modernist Villa Malaparte on Punta Massullo), Palance’s red-hot Alpha Romeo 2600 and Bardot’s bare flesh do help to distract from the ‘non-existent’ story and wholly unlikeable characters: especially Bardot’s cold and contrary Camille, who not only tests the patience of Piccoli’s frustrated writer, but also ours…

Godard The Essential CollectionLe Mépris (Cert: 15, 99min) features alongside Breathless, Pierrot Le Fou, Alphaville and Une Femme est Une Femme in StudioCanal’s Jean-Luc Godard The Essential Blu-ray Collection (available from 1 February) and is accompanied by the following extras:
• Introduction with Colin McCabe
Once Upon A Time There Was… Contempt: An indepth 53-minute featurette in which Godard separates fact from myth over the making of the film.
Contempt… Tenderly: A 32-minute ‘making-of’ that’s overshadowed by the previous one.
The Dinosaur and the Baby: This terrific 61-minute TV special featuring Godard and Lang in conversation is a real treat.
Conversation with Fritz Lang: The cinematic legend is interviewed in a series of on-set recordings (15min).

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About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on January 5, 2016, in Classic World Cinema, Must See, Must-See, World Cinema and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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