"The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires," or so says the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963).
Contempt is conceptually simple and emotionally complex, relaying a banal story of a dissolving love while striving to capture the dissolution of that love in strictly observed, wrenching detail. For a filmmaker, using a visual medium to convey a story driven by internal emotions is a complex task. Godard attempts this feat in Contempt, in which the relationship between a playwright and his wife splinters just as production on a modern version of Homer’s Odyssey begins. Godard explores these two plotlines in a self-aware, meta way -- the themes of The Odyssey often parallel the dramas of the characters, which in turn echo the real-life marital struggles Godard was facing at the time.
The marriage of Camille (Brigitte Bardot) and Paul (Michel Piccoli) deteriorates under the weight of Camille’s contempt for Paul’s lack of self regard. She fears he is selling himself out to write the screenplay for The Odyssey, directed by Fritz Lang (as himself) and is using her beautiful looks and company as leverage to appease the horrendous American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), the film’s financier.
Lang has a theory about The Odyssey: It is not a story about Penelope’s faithfulness and Ulysses’ desire to return home to her, but about a woman’s contempt for her absent husband. He suggests Ulysses would have returned home faster if he truly wanted to return to her, but he has grown indifferent. “It takes Ulysses ten years to return home because he doesn’t really want to return,” he says. “He doesn’t rush home to Ithaca because he was unhappy with Penelope, but the trouble started before he went off to war.”
Paul questions this theory, asking why Ulysses bothered to kill Penelope’s suitors if that were the case. Lang explains that “at first, he told her to accept their gifts. He didn’t see them as real threats. Knowing her to be faithful, he told her to be nice to the suitors. That is when Penelope, being a simple woman, began to despise him. She found she’d stopped loving Ulysses because of his behavior. Ulysses then realized too late that he’d lost Penelope’s love.” This, of course, is a nutshell version of what has happened in Contempt up to this point.
This conversation scene follows Paul and Lang as they traverse a hill toward the Casa Malaparte, the locale of the film’s final act. Within the house are Camille and Prokosch, bringing what Lang just illustrated to life within Paul’s world. In this version of The Odyssey as it pertains to Paul and Camille, modern people in the regular world, gods are replaced by human idols -- like movie producers who stand in exaggerated poses of authority, who toss film cans around screening rooms akin to Roman discus throwers, and who audaciously claim they “like gods very much” because they “know exactly how they feel.”
Contempt uses this blurring of reality and cinema to complicate and exaggerate its meaning. Godard can use the camera to instill divinity in mere mortals through the use of framing and imagery. Contempt is a modern tragedy set in the bright sunshine of Italy, where the darkness of the soul is pitted against the majesty of nature, which cares little about human suffering on its soil. We watch a relationship fall to pieces using a story of the same subject as its backdrop -- but the epic scale of The Odyssey minimizes the scale of its modern version, and we know the story is bound to end without acceptance. In the very first scene, when the two share a bed and Godard’s camera caresses Camille’s naked body, Paul swears he loves her “totally, tenderly, and tragically.” The last word is significant.
Paul comes to realize his marriage is truly over while at Casa Malaparte in Capri, a house on a stretch of land jettisoning from the earth, surrounded by the sea. Paul sees Camille for the last time in this setting -- he on a rock, her in the water, much like the sirens who tempted Ulysses. If ever a real-life siren existed, it was Brigitte Bardot, and Contempt seems to imply no man can understand her for who she truly is. Only nature and cinema can survive.
Criterion writes, "Contempt is an ironic retelling of Homer’s Odyssey. At one point Camille wryly summarizes the Greek epic as 'the story of that guy who’s always traveling.' But Paul’s restlessness is internal, making him ill at ease everywhere. In modern life, implies Godard, there is no homecoming, we remain chronically homeless, in barely furnished apartments where the red drapes never arrive. Paul’s Odysseus and Camille’s Penelope keep advancing toward and retreating from each other: never arriving at port.”
The events of the story are somewhat inefficient in even establishing when Camille fell out of love with Paul. Was it when he “pimped” her off on Prokosch, suggesting she ride with him after the studio scene? Was it during their long conversation at the apartment? Was it while Paul was flirting with Prokosch’s translator while simultaneously harboring jealousy about Camille? Or was it before the film even started, with these instances serving as the final straw? And when exactly did his excitement for her droop into something closer to indifference?
Cold Bacon notes, “One can debate whether or not Paul is a tragic figure in the epic sense of Odysseus, Oedipus, Hamlet. His tragic flaw, if there is a definable one, is that he’s an asshole, and he lets his ego and insecurities get the best of him. In other words, he’s pretty much like the rest of us. If he has an epiphany, it will have to come after the film is ended. In Greek tragedy, Paul would have realized his error and changed his ways, only just in time to actually witness the crash. Also, I have to admit Godard’s reinvention of the Odysseus myth is actually pretty interesting... At the start of the film Prokosch offers his 'theory about the Odyssey' that Penelope was unfaithful. This becomes the prophecy which Paul himself will cause to be true. Godard’s work is so insightful because it is exactly this kind of male insecurity, which is as old as Homer and will always cause men to doubt Penelope. And it is this very doubt which seems to fuel Paul’s contempt for Camille (and in turn the reverse). So whether you want to call it a tragedy, or just a good unlove story, it’s very much a cautionary tale. If you too suspect all females, you will side with Paul. If not then not.”
Godard not only chose The Odyssey as the Lang/Prokosch production within Contempt to mirror the contempt between Camille and Paul but also used it to reflect Godard himself and his wife at the time, Anna Karina. The background reality of Godard’s decaying true-life relationship adds dimension to the on-screen narrative. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard referred to Contempt as "a letter to [Godard's] wife." (His personal animosity for the Italian and American producers of the film also rears its head, in another obvious autobiographical touch.)
Contempt doesn’t want to be compared to The Odyssey. Instead, it retells the tragic tale with irony, as a film within a film referencing reality, all blurred together through the artistic power of cinema.