It is a film about film, about the creation of artifice which pretends to be reality, a depiction scripted, staged and rehearsed before the camera is loaded in preparation for the performance, director Fritz Lang and producer Jeremy Prokosch at odds over the direction the project will take and caught between them the screenwriter Paul Javal, expected to make changes yet not told what they are to be, only that what is currently on the page is not what is wanted.
Decanting from Rome where Paul and his wife Camille have bought a luxurious apartment which they are now in the process of refurbishing, their limited resources having already obliged Paul to accept this assignment when he would rather be working as a playwright, at Prokosch’s luxurious villa overlooking the sea on the island of Capri their marriage continues to decay, crumbling under the relentless sun as the paint peels off the whitewashed walls and the waves assault the cliffs below.
Based on Albert Moravia’s 1954 novel Il Disprezzo (Contempt), also known as A Ghost at Noon, director Jean-Luc Goddard adapted it as Le Mépris in 1963, starring Michel Piccoli as Paul, Brigitte Bardot as Camille, Jack Palance as Prokosch and Fritz Lang as himself, the wealth of experience of the man who directed Metropolis giving him a calm assurance which is nonetheless overshadowed by the tantrums of the producer of this new version of Homer’s Odyssey, throwing film cans around the screening room when he is displeased.
The blue skies and marble statues of gods and heroes echoing the age of antiquity, the characters quote literature but feel nothing except disdain and, as the title indicates, contempt, ancient emotion turned to dust, the camera luxuriating in Bardot’s naked body even as she seeks reassurance from her husband as to her beauty, Camille frustrated that her feelings are not considered and needing Paul to intuit what has upset her but sidestepping when he challenges her to express what is wrong, her agony punctuated by the repeating motif of Georges Delerue’s mournful and dramatic score.
With French, Italian and English spoken, most every conversation repeated out of necessity as Giorgia Moll’s Francesca translates, the words and the ideas behind them may be conveyed accurately but say nothing, Le Mépris a film about the difficulty of communicating where over-intellectualising wrings any passion out of the exchanges and leaves only frustration, Camille obviously unhappy in the role of trophy wife yet unwilling to change the role as written, refusing to rock the boat in which their host takes her around the island and in doing so accepting a fate as inevitable as any Greek tragedy.
Regarded by some as one of the greatest works of the French new wave and given a substantial restoration supervised by director of photography Raoul Coutard, Le Mépris celebrates its sixtieth anniversary by joining StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics range supported by three archive documentaries, 1963’s Paparazzi, 1964’s Le Parti des Choses and 2009’s Il était une fois… Le Mépris, along with an introduction by film writer and Goddard expert Colin MacCabe.