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Contempt: A Once-a-Century Cultural Constellation

Ugly people Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance in Contempt
Film Forum/Rialto Pictures

They don't make them like this anymore. Point of fact, they never did; Godard's Contempt is a once-a-century cultural constellation. Inexplicably underwritten by gauche producers/foils Carlo Ponti and Joseph E. Levine, JLG undertakes an adaptation of Alberto Moravia's 1954 novel of romantic fatalism. He keeps to the book's storyline: the corrosion of a young marriage, which becomes a self-analytical detective story in the "intellectual" husband's niggling insistence on finding exactly where things went wrong. Godard replaces Moravia's first-person interiority with a real sense of domestic life; the film's famous second movement is a quietly virtuosic half-hour of Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot bickering all through their apartment, built around the mechanics of sharing a bathroom. Piccoli plays a scriptwriter just brought onboard a screen version of The Odyssey by philistine producer Jerry (a very funny Jack Palance, with the wedge head of a grinning excavated idol) to break an impasse with the director (Fritz Lang, as himself) over artsy dailies. The Babel of international co-productions lends itself to a tangle of dialogue in French, Italian, German, English, and American, in which proverbs, poetry, and bad jokes are translated for exchange. Identified in its trailer as a "New Traditional film," Contempt conflates the Mediterraneans of antiquity and Alfa Romeo, with enough omnicultural reference points to support a slab of footnotes. It's the intersection of pedantry and absolute sensuality. It's Bardot, age 28, preserved in cheesecake inserts. It's light filtered through cypresses at Jerry's vacation villa (Casa Malaparte, on the bluffs of Capri, a favored getaway spot for venal emperors). The film swells to a masochistic luxuriance; beneath it all are the weeping string arrangements of Georges Delerue, returning with the persistence of an inconsolable fixed idea: "What happened?"


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