"Whenever I hear the word culture, I bring out my checkbook."
"In Nazi Germany that word brought out the pistol." — Jack Palanceand Fritz Lang in Contempt
There are no casual lovers of Jean-Luc Godard. To appreciate the art behind his films takes commitment — something I fear I have never had. Which is not to say his talents are lost on me, only that my understanding of what he's attempting to communicate is incomplete.
And so, in reading all the gushing praise from critics for the rerelease of his sixth film, Contempt (though only his third to be released in this country), I have to wonder if it isn't a bit of professional cowardice. After all, most serious critics today laud both the filmmaker and the film as genius. And so, to disagree with that assertion is to require proof and if most critics are anything like me, they haven't the intellectual ammunition to make their case. Easier to agree, find reasons to praise Godard's strange shifts in time, camera filters and sound design as the work of an iconoclastic mastermind and wax poetic about the more obvious themes: selling out and the failure of relationships.
But when Contempt first reached our shores in 1963, the response was near-universal damnation. Critics heaped scorn on the picture, simultaneously accusing Godard of hubris and irrelevance, and the film quickly faded from view. Were those critics any less savvy than the critics of today? Or is it simply that Contempt was screened in general audience theaters back then but is now given the pedigree of an art-house release?
Contempt is both intensely fascinating and frustratingly dull. Godard is clearly not a storyteller. The plot bumps along in fits and starts, often detouring into unconnected exchanges. The characters are more cinematic construction than flesh-and-blood humans — Jack Palance is a cartoonish megalomaniac while Brigitte Bardot is as far from a working-class typist as one can get. And the film's few dramatic events are purposely drained of their impact. For instance, an auto accident that kills off two of the characters is clumsily handled as an off-screen sound effect, with Godard showing us only an abstracted aftermath of sculptural wreckage.
Still, as a meditation on art as life and life as art reflected through four different languages and cultures, it's a brilliant mosaic of personal betrayal, artistic integrity and man's evolving notion of self. Godard keeps careful focus on the dissolution of love and the commoditization of inspiration, as he wields beautiful CinemaScope images to macabre and precise effect. His painfully claustrophobic middle act — a 30-minute marital argument that drips with acid and raw anger — has a disturbing urgency that has rarely been repeated in cinema. Contempt may be tough to chew and harder to digest but it's meaty cinema that the more adventurous may find (uh, profoundly) satisfying. —Jeff Meyers
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 5, at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 6, and at 7 p.m. on Monday, July 7. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.