Film Review – Le Mépris (1963)


Considered to be one of the most inspired and innovative directors of his time, the oeuvre of Jean Luc Godard is getting a retrospect, starting on the 1st January 2016, the BFI are mounting an extensive season dedicated to the filmmaker. During this time, there will be a run and a re-release of his 1963 New Wave masterpiece Le Mépris.

Often considered to be Godard’s greatest work, Le Mépris follows the story of young screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) who finds himself entangled in a creative battle between director (the marvelous Fritz Lang as himself) and an implacable, often misogynistic American producer (Jack Palance, ‘The Big Kinfe’, ‘City Slickers’) whilst the production of a new adaptation of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ gets underway.

The true heart of the story lies within the relationship between Paul and his beautiful wife, Camille (played by the infamous Brigitte Bardot). About halfway through Le Mépris, Camille reveals to her husband that all she feels towards him is contempt and the rest of the film hinges on the deep-lying problems in their relationship.

The film works as a platform to amplify Bardot’s sex symbol status, there are numerous scenes where Camille is naked and her actions always seem unpredictable, lacking any kind of thought process, she very rarely actually does anything and one wonders throughout the film what she’s even thinking. In one sense, Camille is only present for her ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, as an object for both the characters on screen, and members of the audience to cast a voyeuristic gaze onto. On the other hand, the entire story revolves around her content for her husband, so she is vital to the plot.

Le Mépris also works as Godard’s love letter to cinema. Like a lot of New Wave films from the 1960’s, there is a sense of nostalgia for Hollywood’s now faded golden era of the studio system. Godard litters the background of some of his scenes with promotional posters for the films of John Wayne. On top of this, the subject of the film effectively focuses on people who watch each other, and judge each other, then are in turn watched and judged by the cinema (in the form of Fritz Lang, who always stands apart from the contempt amongst the remaining characters).

However, the film’s highlight is its look, it is a strikingly beautiful, shot entirely on location in Rome and on the island of Capri for the second half. The characters’ bright, fashionable clothes perfectly match Godard’s use of colour filters and bright primary colour coding in his set design, and the fact that the entire film is set in the bright sunshine of Italy only enhances the gorgeously delirious look.

Whilst perhaps not quite having as much cool ‘oomph’ that some of Godard’s other work has (consider ‘Breathless’), Le Mépris remains an absolute masterpiece and will now hopefully be seen by a whole new generation of filmgoers thanks to the BFI.

Josh Hall

Drama, World Cinema | France, 1963 | PG | BFI | 1st January 2016 (UK) | Dir.Jean-Luc Godard | Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang

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