'Le Mepris': Women, Statues, Gods

By Coates, Paul | Film Criticism, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

'Le Mepris': Women, Statues, Gods


Coates, Paul, Film Criticism


Theme: separation

When the eye lifts up to the sky all it sees is blue. If the color blue comes increasingly to prevail as Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mepris (Contempt) nears its end, it is as the sign of the defeat and self-defeat of the idea of the hero. It is the blue in the eyes of the divine mask at the start of Fritz Lang's film-within-the-film, a version of The Odyssey. As its protagonist's jealousy drives his wife to another man--to provoke him and/or escape him--the blue of his depression deepens to match the ascendancy of Poseidon, owner as it were of the waters above the heavens, enemy of the Odysseus with whom Paul parallels himself. For Paul (Michel Piccoli), his wife (Brigitte Bardot) is as inscrutable as the statues of the gods in the putative Fritz Lang film. But that inscrutability is less indicative of divinity than of her objectification: the naked backside she displays at the film's beginning anticipates the pornography of the Roman art coffee table book she and Paul both flick through. The producer Prokosh lambaste Lang's film, and art itself becomes prostitution as Paul works for Prokosh and Godard himself provides the nude shots his producer demanded. Lang quotes Brecht's poem on his Hollywood experience of hopefully joining the vendors of lies. Godard's own film is deeply Brechtian in its acting, morality, and color-coding: white backgrounds turn the blocks of primary color (red, blue, yellow) into quotations; Bardot's discarded wraps (red or yellow--blue being her sober everyday suit) fly across the screen like splashes of paint. The Brechtian contradiction between Delerue's sweepingly romantic music and Bardot's derriere is also the gulf between body and soul--feminine and masculine--that tears both Paul and the work apart. "Der arme b.b." is also feminized as poor Brigitte Bardot, the Brecht quotation recalling her remark to Paul that it did not matter whether or not she was lying. She and Paul whirl down in a vicious circle: she says she loves him one moment, "I no longer love you" the next, to gauge his closeness to her. True love would know whether or not the lover is lying. But Paul is far away, lost in his thoughts, self-alienated both by working for Prokosh and by choosing an intellectual inferior as his wife: a typist, she can easily become a haunting mere body, objectified as pornographic beauty. Camille may be contemptuous of Paul, but there are hints that the feeling is mutual. Paul says, "Show women cinema and they show their behinds," exactly as Bardot has done for Godard and his backers. Contempt for her is also self-contempt, as the obsession with the behind obscures the face that might reveal the truth, the person. At the end, after Camille's death, the screen's empty blue shouts the absence of the statue of her that might have loomed against its background, like those of Lang's gods. A female statue does indeed figure prominently in the couple's apartment--Paul taps it and says it sounds different in different places--but it is modern, metallic, clothed, undivine. There is no naked pagan goddess in the film's pantheon. The only goddess to figure in the Lang Odyssey is Athene, a mere bodiless head. The existence of the wisdom she embodies is parodied in Prokosh's borrowed maxim "the wise man does not exploit the impotence of others," an instruction he ignores. His identification with the death-dealing gods collapses when he himself dies. Poseidon, Penelope, and Odysseus may have modern equivalents in Godard's work, but there is none of Athene. Woman's image is split between the Athene who has no modern equivalent and the Aphrodite who is never shown: a gulf separates mind and body, body and soul. In Le Mepris separation, like the contempt itself, is not "alienation" but primal, mythical, inexplicable. If the split between heaven and earth corresponds to the latter's desacralization, art's fall into prostitution, the resultant emptiness fills the sky with the resonance of myth in the final shot.

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