Essay: Art Film

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Art Cinema and Contempt

Le Mepris (Contempt) is a 1963 by Jean-Luc Godard based on the novel Il Disprezzo by Italian writer Alberto Moravia. The film, like the book, focuses on the deterioration of a couple's relationship, which eerily paralleled Godard's real life. Le Mepris embraces concepts of French New Wave cinema, builds upon theories of art film, and provides a commentary on the Hollywood cinema system. Le Mepris embraces and exemplifies New Wave optimism while simultaneously addressing negative concerns through its narrative structure, realistic approach and parallels, and authorship.

Le Mepris is a film about film that focuses on the deterioration of the relationship between Paul, a screenwriter hired by the American producer Jeremy Prokosch to rewrite the script for a new film based on the Odyssey and directed by Fritz Lang, and his wife, who feels underappreciated, ignored, and believes her husband is selling out. While Lang, playing himself in the film, believes that the film should be artistic in nature and structures it based upon his own interpretation, Prokosch believes Lang's interpretation is not faithful to the original story, and that the film may be considered to be too risque and abstract for the general public. During the course of the film, it becomes evident that parallels between the characters in the Odyssey arise within the characters of the film, which furthermore reflect events in Godard's life. In the film, Paul begins to mirror Odysseus, the wandering Trojan hero; Camille begins to develop parallels to Penelope, Odysseus's faithful wife who waited for her husband to return; and Prokosch mirrors Poseidon, who interfered in Odysseus's/Paul's relationship with his wife and strove to drive a wedge between the couple. Ultimately, the relationship between Paul and Camille is irrevocably destroyed as she decides to run off with Prokosch; both she and Prokosch are killed at the end of the film in a car accident (Le Mepris).

Through the film's direction and narrative, Le Mepris embraces New Wave characteristics such as the rejection of traditional Hollywood cinema and through self-reflexivity. In "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema," Francois Truffaut, one of the founding members of the French New Wave movement and a critic with Cahiers du Cinema, had previously commented on traditional and commercial films in French cinema. Truffaut criticized, "that films of this type were writers films, and the film was truly completed when the writer finished writing it; that the director was only a craftsman who went out to get it on film" (Truffaut). Truffaut later argued that the "metteurs-en-scene [or directors] are and wish to be responsible for the scenarios and dialogues they illustrate" (Truffaut). In Le Mepris, this concept can be seen on two levels, Lang's interpretation of the Odyssey and Godard's interpretation of Moravia's novel. While Lang appears to be in conflict with Prokosch in the film, Godard thrives because although the film is based on Moravia's novel, the screenplay was written by the director himself. In the film, Lang is not afforded this opportunity and he is forced to either "faithfully" adapt the Odyssey or follow Paul's screenplay thereof, which is a direct contradiction of a concept referenced by Truffaut that asserts, "An honest adaptation is a betrayal" ("A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema").

Le Mepris also embodies New Wave ideology through its self-reflexive nature. Not only is Le Mepris a film about film, but it also demonstrates a high level of awareness of the influence of other directors and styles within cinema. For instance, Fritz Lang plays a major role in the film, not only because he is a director himself, but because he represents the cinematic movements that sought to break away from traditional Hollywood narratives in the aftermath of World War II. In "The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice, " David Bordwell states, "the art cinema descends from the early film d'art and such silent national cinema schools as German Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit and French Impressionism" (716). By including Lang, and his interpretation of the Odyssey, in the film, Godard is not only acknowledging the director's past work and influence on cinema, but is also acknowledging the impact these previous art cinema movements have had. The conflict between New Wave and classical Hollywood can be seen through the references to Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, who although were auteurs in their own right, still adhered to the ideologies of the traditional narrative.

Le Mepris addresses the conflict between New Wave as an artistic movement and traditional cinema through its narrative structure, characters, realism, and the role of the director. Bordwell contends, "the art cinema defines itself explicitly against the classical narrative mode, and especially against the cause-effect linkage of events" (717). In Le Mepris, the audience is not asked to analyze the film's narrative, but rather to analyze the characters, their motivations, and how their interactions affect the audience. Bordwell contends that the narrative of art films is driven by realism and authorial expressivity. Art cinema utilizes real locations and real problems as backdrop for psychologically complex and realistic characters (718). In Le Mepris, Godard sets his narrative in Italy, on various locations, which are also used by Lang during his filming of the Odyssey. Godard is able to successfully and realistically depict the constant struggles between a producer and a director within the Hollywood system. Psychological complexity can be seen in Lang and Prokosch's differing perspectives and interpretations of the Odyssey. However, psychological complexity is best represented in the characters of Paul and Camille, whose fictional relationship heavily resembles the relationship between Godard and Anna Karina, his wife and muse. In "The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice," Bordwell states, "the characters of the art cinema lacked defined desires and goals. Characters may act for inconsistent reasons…or may question themselves about their goals" (718). This description can be best applied to Camille. Throughout the film, her behaviors and decisions lack defined desires and goals. While Camille's husband's purpose in the film and within the narrative is more defined, it is difficult to discern and comprehend the bipolar behavior Camille exhibits. One moment she is supportive of her husband, and the next, she is cold and distant. Moreover, it is difficult to determine whether she truly loves her husband or if she is with him for the comforts in life that the marriage affords; at one point, Camille associates living in a beautiful Italian condo with staying with Paul although this rationalization appears materialistic and petty. It appears as though Godard attempts to resolve issues in his personal relationship with Karina in the film through Camille. During various scenes, Camille is shown wearing a wig that closely resembles Karina's dark, short hair cut; Camille in the film is played by Bridgette Bardot and has long, blonde hair (Le Mepris).

Moreover, through these psychologically complex characters and realistic portrayal of a failing relationship also adhere to certain aspects of Gilles Deleuze's theories of the time-image. Deleuze contends that the time image is a place where sound and movement-images do not provide a clear explanation of how they are going to be understood and are subject to individual interpretation. The time-image does not attempt to provide a referential representation of the world, thus, the image is timeless (Deleuze). Just as the conflict between Odysseus and Penelope is mirrored in the relationships between Paul and Camille hundreds of years into the future, so is it mirrored in the 1960s relationship between Godard and Karina. The conflict in these relationships will undoubtedly mirror some unknown relationship, thus creating a sense of timelessness.

While Le Mepris is a more commercial film based on a narrative not scripted by Godard, but rather adapted from an existing novel, it still allows Godard to showcase his talents and artistic style. Bordwell contends that… [END OF PREVIEW]

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