Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) is a film in which every element is drenched in thematic significance. Through the use of color, dialogue, satire, and romance, Godard crafts a story that is simultaneously about a shattered love and a crumbling film industry. Language itself is a theme upon which the film is founded - with dialogue in French, German, English, and Italian, and a story centered around the translation of a Greek epic into a film shot in Italy, each character's dialogue is filtered through an interpreter named Francesca (Giorgia Moll). The multilingual script not only keeps the audience perpetually off-kilter, but comments on the international economy of film and the complicated relationship between American and European cinema.
The film's use of language is so thematically central that Godard took his name off the Italian release of the picture, in which the polyglot audio was all dubbed into Italian. This change made the film more immediately accessible for Italian audiences, but eliminated the communication problems that are fundamental to the film's plot and themes, not to mention that it rendered the prominent character of Francesca totally superfluous. Erasing the complexities of language destroys the film's meaning.
The simple fact that the characters don’t understand each other is not the driving force of the plot, but it illuminates the fact that all of the characters are alienated from each other. They have to wait for a middleman to repeat their words, and wait again for a response; opportunities for miscommunication always abound. Few characters in Contempt ever see eye-to-eye, or ear-to-ear. Prokosch (Jack Palance) and Fritz Lang (playing himself) fail to agree about the nature of the picture they should make; Paul (Michel Piccoli) is constantly put between the two filmmakers; and Paul and Camille (Brigitte Bardot), despite both speaking French, reveal that even a common language is often inadequate for properly expressing one’s feelings.
The highlight of Contempt is its second act, the half-hour sequence in the middle of the film in which Paul and Camille wander about their flat, wavering between love, romance, passive-aggression, hatred, work, baths, robes, furniture, and choppy dialogue full of the same questions over and over: “Why don’t you love me anymore?” and “What did I do?” The answers never come - it’s unclear if the characters even know what they are. As the actions, costumes, and shots change throughout the sequence, the focus remains on the dialogue and the ways in which so much is said but nothing is accomplished. The couple ultimately fails in communicating, but the film succeeds in revealing the simultaneous power and inadequacy of language.
Contempt is never merely a love story, but also a commentary on the complicated process of filmmaking and the perceived state of American Hollywood film production at the time. While the screenplay explores these ideas with its varied and inexact language, Godard's cinematic language reveals its own conflicts of articulation. In the film's opening scene, featuring a naked Bardot lounging on a bed, the scene color randomly changes for no reason other than to remind the viewer that they are watching a scene in a film that exists only because of conflicted producer-director points of view. Roger Ebert wrote, "Contempt is not one of the great Godard films, for reasons it makes clear. In a way, it's about its own shortcomings. A drama exists at ground level involving the characters, while the film fights between the tendency to elevate them into art (Lang) or vulgarize them into commerce (Palance)...its real importance is as a failed experiment. Contempt taught Godard he could not make films like this, and so he included himself out, and went on to make the films he could make."
Contempt explores economics and the shortcomings of language as major factors which stifle the expression and realization of artistic hunger. Every subject explored in the film - antiquity and modernity, relationships and cinema, art and commerce - are in contempt with one another, and each of these conflicts are complicated by the characters’ inability to properly communicate their own thoughts and emotions.