There’s an extraordinary irony surrounding Contempt, the 1963 Jean-Luc Godard film that is being rereleased, as a presentation of Martin Scorsese, in a dazzling new CinemaScope print. It’s a great movie — tender, searing, tragic, arguably the most intimate portrait of the dissolution of a marriage ever filmed. In the hypnotic opening scene, Paul (Michel Piccoli), a 30ish screenwriter wriggling between the demands of commerce and art, lies in bed exchanging moody words of devotion with his young wife, played by Brigitte Bardot, whose ravishing nakedness, while not quite the shock it was in the early ’60s, casts as sensual a spell as ever. Less than 24 hours later, the flame of their relationship will have smoldered, dwindled, and died, a progression Godard charts with such lyrical intensity that we seem to be witnessing the primal dance of the 20th-century sexes — the infusion of love with doubt and dread. The irony is this: In its sustained narrative force, Contempt gives the lie to virtually every other film Godard ever made. To those who (like me) find even his revolutionary ’60s movies ”provocative” yet dissociated to the point of psychosis, this is the work that reveals the genius he fragmented into oblivion.
Contempt is also one of the great movies about moviemaking. A vulgarian producer (Jack Palance) has hired Piccoli as a rewrite hack. His assignment is to touch up the producer’s latest project, a new version of The Odyssey being directed by Fritz Lang (playing himself). Godard makes wicked sport of Palance’s art-annihilating mogul, whose sole creative impulse is to request more shots of nude mermaids. In another filmmaker’s hands, we would have been asked to divine a link between the hero’s personal and professional ”integrity.” For Godard, though, the link isn’t simply about integrity — it’s about faith.
In a sun-drenched apartment in Rome, Piccoli and Bardot bicker, draw close, and draw away again. She’s testing him — she gives him a number of chances to mend their love — but the more unsettled he is by her games, the further her teasing boils over into contempt. Without faith, a marriage turns to poison. Piccoli simmers magnificently, and Bardot, sexy but no kitten, creates one of the most sympathetic femmes fatales in movie history. In Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard caught modern man’s fall from grace — that is, from a world where believing in something, be it love or the movies, was the one way to make it exist. A