Most cinephiles, faced with a choice between an original language, subtitled film, and a dubbed version, will choose the former. But what if it is a multilingual film, released in different versions? Would you be tempted to choose the version of your own language? Such a choice with Le Mépris (Contempt) yields a radically different experience, well beyond the mere question of subtitles.
The story tells of the making of a movie in Italy with an American producer, an Austrian director, plus a script doctor and his beautiful wife. The French version is multilingual. Whereas the English-American and Italian versions are entirely dubbed. Crucially, in the English-American version, the producer seems to be followed about by a quirky assistant who paraphrases the somewhat vainglorious proclamations of her boss for the benefit of other mere mortals. Only in the French version, is it apparent she is an interpreter.
This is important, as one of the themes of Le Mépris is the breakdown of communication. Not only are the producer and director at odds with each other, but the marital breakdown of the script doctor and his wife (played by Michel Piccoli and the glamorous Brigitte Bardot) is placed under the microscope. Three further parallels are neatly woven into our story. One is the tale of Ulysses separated from his wife Penelope, in which he is protected by Minerva but threatened by Neptune (Homer's Odyssey is the subject of the film-within-a-film). Second is an examination of the gap between cinema-for-profit and cinema-as-art, partly mirrored in the Le Mépris' actual production as well as in its subject matter. And third are autobiographical references to Godard's personal life – both his love life and his life as a filmmaker. Whereas the French version of the movie raises serious questions about the film industry, about the relationship between man and the gods, and even explores some of the more challenging questions about love, life and Homer's work; in the English-American version these things become like added confectionery, arty flourishes for more passive audiences. Or for whom the challenge of discovering cinematic jokes within references to Rio Bravo and works by Fritz Lang (who plays himself as a director) become an intellectual conceit.
Brigitte Bardot here finds at once both a self-consciously iconic and a substantial acting role. On the one hand, her acting talents are utilised to greater effect than in many of her films. On the other, long (soft-core) nude scenes are both complicit in, and critical of, her sex-goddess status. The opening scene, where she teasingly asks her husband which part of her body he finds most attractive, was added at the insistence of the film's American co-producers. Yet its mocking style is almost a lampoon of the use of sex to sell big budget U.S. films. The film-within-a-film's American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (played by Jack Palance), is visibly more enthusiastic about scenes involving nakedness than any faithfulness to the spirit of Homer. Director Fritz Lang, in contrast, goes to great length to examine the essence of the Odyssey, using Dante's Inferno and a poem by Friedrich Holderlin. The gods are created by men, not vice versa, and create the challenges Odysseus is forced to face. It is an easy step to observe how the American producer, throwing his weight around in 'godlike' fashion, both misses this point and actually identifies with the lesser 'gods' of sex and wealth. These gods – in the form of a much-needed cheque for Piccoli's character and the dangling of Bardot's allures before Prokosch, threaten both the marriage and the integrity of the film-within-a-film. Contempt breeds among the characters and begets tragedy.
Piccoli also has a great line about exploitation: "Usually, when you see women, they're dressed. But put them in a movie, and you see their backsides." As if to underline the point, Prokosch casually has his assistant bend over so he can use her (clothed) backside as a table to sign a cheque. His imperious and lecherous attitude dovetails the 'Americanised' scenes that show naked women's backsides without explicitness. They contrast strongly against the clothed Bardot who is portrayed as an intelligent woman able to hold her own.
This film is one of the most rounded of any of Godard's work and can easily be viewed as 'mainstream' – the more philosophical riddles being purely optional. And if Godard is displaying contempt for the prostituting of cinematic art to big business – principally American big studios – the style is still reverential towards his American heroes: Le Mépris has been accurately described as, "Hawks and Hitchcock shot in the manner of Antonioni." Godard, like Ulysses and Piccoli's character, has both engaged with the enemy - American producer Joseph E Levine (Neptune, Prokosch) and prevailed. He has not 'sold-out' to big finance but, like Ulysses on coming home, merely disguised himself as a beggar to better elicit the truth. 'Minerval' wisdom shines through (especially from the mouth of his hero-in-exile, Fritz Lang, with lines that reflect Godard's philosophy). When Bardot's character Camille wears a black wig, she resembles Godard's wife Anna Karina. Her story, subjected to unwanted attentions while her husband is absent, parallels Penelope.
By many sleights of hand, Godard continues to 'explore the uninhabited world' and simultaneously produce a film for many different audiences. Le Mépris is very clever and enjoyable to watch, but does it have anything new to say? Or is it an exquisite exercise in admiring its own limitations? The films strengths are less obvious than the overtly cinematic and revolutionary Breathless, or the philosophically challenging 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. It has as much depth as you wish to find in it, and is more convincing than his disjointed political diatribes. But, unlike all those films, it can also be overlooked as little more than a pleasant experience. Especially by anyone who thinks it would be simpler if we all spoke the same language. Subtitles or not.