Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt—France/Italy, 1963) is a movie about making a movie. In an early scene that takes place in a studio screening room, boorish producer Jeremiah Prokosch (American actor Jack Palance), who wants to infuse his high-culture subject matter—a cinematic version of Homer’s Odyssey—with a little fashionable eroticism, vents his displeasure with the difference between his original script and the images that have been made from it by his German director, Fritz Lang (played by legendary German director Fritz Lang). We can’t help but notice, on the masking beneath the screen and behind the ranting Prokosch (Figure R2.10), that there is displayed (in Italian) a quote from Louis Lumière:

The cinema is an invention without a future

Lang counters his producer’s dissatisfaction—which has to do primarily with the absence of the erotic scenes described in his script—by explaining that screenplays are made of mere words while movies themselves are made of “motion pictures.” The irony, at least in part, derives from Godard’s conviction that images express only appearances and “moving pictures” only illusions: they conceal rather than reveal, and in order to get them to reveal something, the filmmaker must integrate them with such expressive devices as words. In this respect, it’s interesting that Lang’s images—if indeed what we periodically see on the screen are intended to be images from the Odyssey that he’s making—not only don’t speak, they don’t really move very much. Rather, they appear to be inert monuments to Homer’s images—without the poetry— particularly when it comes to the gods (see Figure 2.11 [1]).

Ask an Epic Question . . .

As for Homer’s Odyssey, we’re expected to know that it’s a long narrative poem dating from about 700 BCE and one of the foundation stones of Western literature. We can also say with some confidence that we know what Homer’s great “invention” was: he transformed the common language, myths, symbols, and paradigms of an oral tradition catering to the rich patrons of itinerant bards into a vast and unified poetic design molded to express a personal vision of heroism and other facets of human behavior both salient and subtle.[2] In trying to sort out Godard’s elaborate web of both high-culture and pop-culture allusions in Le Mépris, we are eventually led to pose some question like the following: Did Homer, present at the birth of Western literature as Louis Lumière was present at the birth of cinema, ever regard his invention as an invention without a future?

If it’s a ridiculous consideration when attributed to Homer, does Godard intend it to be an equally ridiculous supposition when attributed to Louis Lumière? What does it mean that Godard has contrived in Le Mépris for both inventions—Homer’s epic and Lumière’s cinema—to fall simultaneously into the hands of a vulgar producer and a screenwriter whose specialty is detective novels and whose motives are largely mercenary? Do modern commercial necessity and the demands of popular culture close the door on the future as the successors of both inventors have always known it?

A Little History, a Little Tradition, a Little Pop Culture


          Fritz Lang in Le Mépris

The central story in Le Mépris concerns the detective-story novelist who’s taken on the task of reworking the screenplay from which Lang will be required to draw his images into a form more congenial to Jeremiah Prokosch’s tastes. Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) thus finds himself having simultaneously to meet professional responsibilities to his obnoxious employer and emotional responsibilities to his beautiful new wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), who feels underappreciated and ultimately realizes (or is at least made to believe) that she’s being used as an erotic distraction to keep Prokosch from suspecting her husband’s lack of confidence in his ability to perform such a demanding literary task. Willingly contracting himself to Prokosch, who is the incarnation and agent of emotional as well as professional corruption, Javal eventually fails to meet either set of responsibilities.

Thus the film that Godard is making is essentially sympathetic to Lang as the calm presence behind the benighted project in which producer, director, and screenwriter are all bound up (see Figure R2.12 [3]). Lang, who began working in the cinema in 1917, perceives the situation historically, and he at least knows that, like Homer, the artist can convert traditional materials into new designs and new forms of expression; he also knows, from first-hand experience, that the filmmaker can convert traditional materials into works which not merely survive commercial compromise but which thrive on the pop-cultural energy that so often fuels such commercial enterprises as making artful movies (see Figure R2.13).[4] Godard himself plays Lang’s assistant director because, at least on some level, he agrees: that must be why, in agreeing to make Le Mépris, he himself contracted with a producer whose specialties included Japanese monster movies and Italian muscle-man epics. Joseph E. Levine provided crucial financing because arrangements had already been made to feature the enormously popular Bardot, whom he expected to see in an occasional nude scene.[5] It is by no means surprising, then, that there should be an allusion to Louis Lumière in a film which is (among other things) a meditation on filmmaking in a commercial context.

Which brings us back to a question implicit in that allusion that we haven’t yet addressed: Did Louis Lumière really say, “The cinema is an invention without a future”? And if he did say it, what did he mean by the statement? By some accounts, it’s what he replied to would-be purchasers of his cinématographe on the afternoon following the first exhibition at the Grand Café. According to other reports, they were told, “It’s a big secret, this device, and I don’t want to sell it. I want to develop it myself, exclusively.”[6] If we look to Godard, who has found his own use for the mythology of the incident, we might conclude that if Lumière did in fact utter the first statement, he meant it in the same spirit as he would have meant the second—namely: “No. I cannot afford to share in the profits of my invention because, as a mere novelty, it has so little future in which to exercise any earning power.”


       Godard, Histoire(s) du cinéma, 1998

As we know, Lumière proceeded to go about the business of selling images of “movement taken from life,” and from the sale of these images drawn from a store of popular staples—or so goes the simplified version of film history reflected in Godard’s use of its own mythology—“the cinema” grew and prospered (presumably to Louis Lumière’s surprise) and survived at least the next 70 years. If Lumière was wrong about the future of his invention, it is, ironically, because he failed to appreciate the durability that moving-picture images would acquire as a result of their continued commerce with popular culture.

And, of course, Louis Lumière could not fully have understood the role that words would come to play in the making of cinematic images. In Le Mépris, even Lang seems to deprecate a cinema that accomodates words, dismissing his own American sound films in favor of a classicism that he extols as the essence of his silent German films.[7] As Figure R2.14 suggests, however, Godard finds a place for the spoken word in the cinematic expression of his characters’ motives. (Joe Levine also gets his nude scene, although the force of the erotic charge is hard to measure by conventional means.)[8]

[1] For Figure R2.11: See Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 157; Richard Brody, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), pp. 170-71.

[2] See Cedric H. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (1958; rpt. New York: W.W. Norton, 1965), pp. 12-16.

[3] For Figure R2.12: See MacCabe, Godard, pp. 147, 149; Brody, Everything Is Cinema, pp. 157-58; Jose Luis Guarner, “Le Mépris,” in The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Ian Cameron (New York: Praeger, 1969), p. 57. See also Simone de Beauvoir, Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome, trans. Bernard Frechtman (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959); Sarah Leahy, “The Matter of Myth: Brigitte Bardot, Stardom and Sex,” Studies in French Cinema 3 (2003), pp. 71-81; Barnet Singer, “Bardot: The Making of a Femme Fatale,” Virginia Quarterly 76 (Fall 2000), pp. 647-60; and Ginette Vincendeau, Brigitte Bardot (London: British Film Institute, 2013). For further discussion of Bardot’s role in the iconography of the French New Wave, see Reading 7.3.

[4] See esp. Toby Mussman, “Notes on Contempt,” in Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology, ed. Mussman (New York: Dutton, 1968), pp. 152-69.

[5] See MacCabe, Godard, pp. 147, 149, 157. On Joseph E. Levine, see Calvin Tomkins, “The Very Rich Hours of Joe Levine,” The New Yorker (September 16, 1967), pp. 55-136.

[6] Quoted by Miriam Rosen, “Lumière, Louis,” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), p. 705.

[7] See MacCabe, Godard, p. 157.

[8] See Brody, Everything Is Cinema, pp. 169-70; MacCabe, Godard, pp. 154-55, 159; Mussman, “Notes on Contempt,” p. 156; Guarner, “Le Mépris,” p. 59. For additional discussions of Contempt, see Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Critical Distance: Godard's Contempt,” in Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 179-86; and Phillip Lopate, “Contempt: The Story of a Marriage,” in Getting Personal: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 2008), pp. 302-10.

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