Contempt  (1964) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Jean-Luc Godard is a legendary figure in film history, a revolutionary who represents modernism in film in the same sense that, for example, Mondrian represents it in painting. Like Mondrian, Godard rejected traditional concepts of art-as-storytelling as well as the naturalistic palette, preferring orchestrated bursts of primary colors and an abstract or static dramatic structure. He showed that the rules can be broken, and this paved a path for future filmmakers to explore new forms and ideas.

Contempt was Godard's major attempt to prove that he could also make a mainstream film.

Bad idea.

He couldn't.

Godard was so far from the mainstream, that he was clueless about exactly what mainstream taste really was. The idea of Godard making a mainstream movie is about as sensible as Henry Kissinger making Meatballs V, Zonker Harris writing Pentagon strategy, Che Guevara selling Coca-Cola, or Crispin Glover playing James Bond.

It is an insider's film. It's a movie about making a movie, a vehicle for Jun-Luc Godard to present his own feelings about the cynical profit-oriented producers that he had to deal with from time to time, as represented in Contempt by Playboy-zillionaire-Philistine Jack Palance, who wants his version of the Odyssey to be filled with battling gladiators and toga-clad women, like a Steve Reeves movie. When Palance comes to see a screening of the first cut from director Fritz Lang (played by Fritz Lang himself), he goes ballistic and starts to throw the film canisters around the room.

In order for the script to work, this has to seem a totally unjustified and boorish act on his part, but to any sensible member of the audience, the producer only did what any man would have done after throwing his life savings into some artistic gibberish that looked like a silent movie. In fact, Godard probably understated what a real producer would have done. Lang's cut featured Odysseus and his associates acting in front of walls painted in bright primary colors, for example, instead of in natural landscapes. Palance roars, "that's not what's in the script," and Lang responds with some rationalization like, "that's because a script is words, and a movie is visual." Frankly, Palance was quite correct to be enraged. The film he was shown was even worse as art than it was as commercial product. It was just plain drivel.

As a result, Godard subverted his own intention to ridicule those who make films entirely for money. It seems to me that Fritz Lang's character is supposed to represent "film as art" and the Palance character represents "film as commerce". If this is an accurate interpretation on my part, I sure hope that the complete and utter crap which Lang offers in his rough cut is not really Godard's concept of art. Of course, the Palance character says many crass and foolish things, but if Palance was justified in his reaction to the drivel he was shown, does the plot of Contempt still work? My estimation is "no." The film makes the money people look more sensible than the artists. Inadvertently, Godard ended up ridiculing himself!

Contempt was a disastrous experiment in many ways. Audiences hated it whether they liked Godard or not. On the one hand, Godard's usual fans found it too Hollywood, on the other hand, it certainly wasn't Hollywood enough to please mainstream moviegoers. Godard himself also hated the film, not because he thought it was bad, but because it made him feel like a sell-out. Even though the film's underlying ideas were subversive and cynical, it "looks Hollywood." It was filmed in Cinemascope and featured an international cast of stars and superstars.

Critics, however, like the movie. Note the fact that 100% of the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes are positive. There is some justification for that position. The cinematography is spectacular, as is the set design, and the visuals are perfectly chosen. You could snap off capture after capture and sell it as a photography book, especially an indoor argument in an apartment that looks like it might have been designed by Mondrian himself, and some rooftop and stairway scenes at a spectacular seaside villa.

Bottom line:

If you like mainstream movies, just skip this film unless you just want to see Bardot's famous tushy, which is featured in scene after scene. Not only does the story move slower than tectonic plates, but the acting in this film is as bad as you'll ever see in a major film. Jack Palance is hilariously miscast as the big money guy. Non-actor Fritz Lang, playing himself, would have fit perfectly into the cast of Plan 9 From Outer Space.

If you don't know much about Godard and are curious to see why people like Martin Scorsese revere him, do NOT start with this film. In a way this film is a sad legacy for a director who is worshipped by many cineastes. In making the actual film "Contempt", Godard demonstrated that he had no concept of commercial filmmaking. In the Odyssey film-within-a-film, Godard demonstrated that he had no concept of artistic filmmaking. Of course, what Godard did understand was "personal filmmaking", which was neither art nor commerce, but an expression of his own vision, outside the boundaries of convention, tradition, and expectation.

If you are already a Godard fan, however, you'll love this DVD because it is a perfect transfer on a two-disc set loaded with extras. The recent re-mastering of the Cinemascope print was supervised by Scorsese himself, and the 2-disk DVD was mastered and assembled by Criterion under the guidance of the film's actual cinematographer, Raoul Coutard. His work, both in the film and on the DVD, is commended without qualification.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • New high definition digital transfer, widescreen anamorphic, 2.39:1, supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard

  • Audio commentary by film scholar Robert Stam

  • New and improved English subtitle translation

  • Two short documentaries featuring Godard on the set of "Contempt": Contempt: Godard et Bardot (8 minutes) and Paparazzi (22 minutes)

  • The Dinosaur and the Baby: a conversation between Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang, filmed in 1967 (61 minutes)

  • Encounter with Fritz Lang: a short film by Peter Fleischmann (1963)

  • Excerpt from an interview between Francois Chalais and Godard about Contempt on French TV program "Cinepanorama"

  • New video interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard

  • Widescreen vs. full-frame demo


  • The actress who plays Penelope in the film-within-a-film does a skinny-dipping scene.
  • Brigitte Bardot shows her buns in several long scenes.

The Critics Vote

  • Ebert 3/4

The People Vote ...


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, C-. Beautifully photographed film, acres of exposure of Brigitte Bardot's famous behind, but a slow-moving film, so slow that it is almost static. Many stretches are all but incoherent, most stretches are soporific.

Return to the Movie House home page