Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trying to 'Get' Godard: Contempt (1963) and Masculin-Feminin (1966)

Brigitte Bardot in Comtempt AKA Le Mepris (1963)

I’m sometimes tempted to put Godard in the same category as certain other acclaimed arthouse directors who mainly make arid nonsense, and it’s usually after I’ve seen one of his total mis-fires, like La Chinoise, One Plus One (which managed to bore me to tears even though it’s all about the Rolling Stones and I’m a big Stones fan), First Name Carmen or L’eloge D’amour. Pierrot Le Fou also left me cold, and three other films often recommended as his best work - A Bout de Soufflé, Alphaville and (Tarantino’s favourite) Bande a Part - I thought were OK but nothing special. All in all, it’s a disappointing turn-out considering his reputation. Yet Godard has made at least two great films - Weekend and Vivre Sa Vie - and another very good one, Tout Va Bien, and there’s something about him that makes me come back to his work every year or so and give him another shot, in a way I’m not inclined to do with many other directors who bore me this much.

Such a policy has mixed results. I watched Masculin-Feminin recently and it was another one of his duds. Paris looked beautiful in it - both the exterior shots and inside the coffee bars - but the typical Godard problems once again applied. There was no story as such, and there wasn’t enough of anything else to compensate. If it was supposed to be an avant-garde film ‘which played with our notions of traditional narrative’ (the usual justification for these things) then it didn’t seem to be doing much ‘playing’. There were just a lot of disconnected scenes vaguely centered on Jean Pierre Leaud and his relationship with a girl named Madeleine (Chantal Goya). One or two of them were interesting but many others were quite tedious and overall it didn’t amount to much. In fact this film struck me as like listening to a 10 year-old boy with ADD who keeps on starting on a new subject every few minutes with no rhyme or reason: not a particularly pleasant experience. And Leaud, usually so likeable as Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s films, here plays an annoyingly petulant, callow youth who’s hard to identify with. 

However, I also re-watched Contempt a few weeks ago, a film that hadn’t impressed me much the first time I saw it, and it seemed a lot better on this occasion. Director Fritz Lang has a small role in it and he’s fine as an actor even though the lines he’s given are often inane: shockingly bad pseudo-theorizing like ‘Man takes comfort from the absence of God’ and so on. Does Godard really expect anyone to be interested in this nonsense, which feel like verbatim quotes he’s taken from the latest philosophy primer he’s reading? I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. And the somnambulent effect of Godard’s artificial dialogue is here redoubled in some scenes because an interpreter acts as a go-between whilst American Jack Palance tries to talk to Frenchman Michel Piccoli; everything has to be translated from English to French and vice-versa, so we hear it twice. 

Generally though, by Godardian standards, this film does make an effort to connect with the viewer. The main musical theme of the film by Georges Delerue is quite beautiful and that helps a lot, plus the visuals are wonderful. (I kept thinking as I was watching that maybe Godard should have been a painter rather than a film director. On the other hand, maybe the striking images here should be more rightly credited to the cinematographer Raoul Coutard). And whilst often in Godard films you feel that the characters barely notice the existence of each other, here at least there is a clear set of characters and a kind of love triangle to hang on to. Piccoli is a screenwriter employed by unpleasant film producer Palance, who throughout the film seems to be on the point of seducing Piccoli’s wife, played by Brigitte Bardot. So we feel some tension at least. 

Much of the first half of the film is taken up with a back and forth discussion/ argument between Piccoli and Bardot about their relationship, set in a striking apartment bathed in warm summer light and decorated with bright red furniture and fabrics. Godard over-does it, for sure. I enjoyed this scene up to a point but it goes on for half an hour or more, the musical theme is repeated at least 10 times at intervals, and in the end you start thinking: doesn’t the director know when to cut, doesn’t he have script or a story to follow, something else he should be moving on to by now? Nevertheless, the inch-perfect framing of those wide cinemascope shots so that they make wonderful stills is very engaging. Plus he does move on eventually and the final twenty minutes of the film, with its unusual coastal setting, are quite captivating. Though this film is still far from perfect, there were enough interesting things in it to make it the fourth Godard film that I can honestly recommend. 

See 90 Screenshots from Contempt here

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