Why Godard’s Le Mépris might be my favourite film ever

As the increasingly nostalgic movie geek world embraces another (not-so-new) wave of Godard-fever – sparked both by the belated UK release of Michel Hazanavicius’ bio-drama Godard Mon Amour (AKA Redoubtable), and the recent 50th anniversary of JLG shutting down the Cannes Film Festival of 1968 – I penned this little ditty about what is clearly his best film, whatever the nerds say

Director Jean-Luc Godard is a master of many things. With his stylish, noir-ish debut Breathless (À bout de soufflé, 1960), he was established as the French New Wave’s master of moody, monochrome, cigarette-sucking, fedora-touting cool.

With his later, post-1968 protest works, Godard proved a master at thrusting bare-faced Marxist ideology onto cinema screens. And throughout his entire, six-decade career Godard has proved a master of tearing up the rulebook – pioneering a fiercely original, cerebral, grainy, jump-cut, narrative-free and often impenetrable approach which best embodies every cliché, good or bad, about so-called arthouse cinema.

But with Le Mépris (Contempt), which turns 55 later this year (in December), Godard also proved a master manipulator of human emotion. I recently had the chance to re-watch this 1963 masterpiece on a big screen, a film I’ve seen perhaps a dozen times before, but even anticipating every bitter conversational turn and faux-profound witticism, the emotional rigor of Godard’s sixth picture remained undiminished. I left the cinema in a nervy but electrified state, needing an hour in a quiet café to steady and appreciate the tragic freewheeling chain of thoughts unravelling.

Michel Piccoli plays a French scriptwriter, recently arrived in Rome to sell his soul, and maybe his beautiful young wife – a timeless turn from Brigitte Bardot – to a crass American movie producer (Jack Palance) making a narcissistic version of Homer’s Odyssey. With stately satire, German expressionist master Fritz Lang, of Metropolis authorship, plays himself as the project’s cynically aloof director.

A movie about moviemaking – but also about love, and hate. The breakdown of Piccoli and Bardot’s marriage – over a single, real-time, 31-minute conversation, inside the claustrophobic, barren walls of their new apartment – is the film’s bulldozering emotional core, a stunningly virtuoso second act of three. But there’s so much more to chew on: Le Mépris is about Greek gods and movie goddesses. About integrity, lust and power. About America and postwar Europe. About the poetry of Technicolor sunlight. Le Mépris is about humans – and how vicious, cruel and transactional we truly are.

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