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American Cinematographer Magazine

Contempt (1963)
Dolby Digital Mono
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

By 1963, the French New Wave wasn't so new anymore, and the filmmakers who had been celebrated for handheld shots and unorthodox cuts were looking to expand their style. The liberating feel of Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows or Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless was becoming a convention in itself, and it was up to the most innovative of the bunch to take the movement to another level.

Though Contempt is unmistakably a Godard film, it boasts a visual style more commonly associated with the era's big-budget spectaculars. Starring international superstar Brigitte Bardot, shot in widescreen by frequent Godard collaborator Raul Coutard, and bathed in rich, primary colors, Contempt often suggests a grand epic or a Vincente Minnelli musical rather than New Wave favorites like Breathless or Masculine/Feminine.

In fact, Contempt, based on an elliptical novel by Alberto Moravia, concerns the production of an epic film based on Homer's The Odyssey. Moravia focused primarily on a frustrated screenwriter's tumultuous relationship with his inscrutable wife, while Godard, not surprisingly, seems more excited by the filmmaking process and its attendant artistic and political ramifications. In the film, the reluctant screenwriter (Michel Piccoli) subjugates his creativity to a domineering director (the brilliantly cast Fritz Lang) who has little regard for the writer's contribution to the process. The director, in turn, must put up with the whims of a philistine producer (Jack Palance), whose character can be summed up by his remark, "Whenever I hear the word 'culture,' I get out my checkbook." Themes of power and identity reverberate in the screenwriter's relationship with his wife (Bardot). And all the while, Godard has fun both mocking and embracing cinematic convention.

This Criterion Collection DVD is the first to present Contempt in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It also offers a number of interesting extras, including a chapter of interviews with cinematographer Coutard. It's also the first chance viewers at home have to see the film's incredibly rich colors - colors so powerful, Coutard recalls, that he and Godard initially thought they were far too bold. Forced to use a particular European print stock for dailies, the two were bitterly disappointed that the colors seemed washed-out compared to what they'd intended. But by the time the final prints were struck on a Kodak stock, they'd become so accustomed to the look of the workprint that when the original colors reappeared in all their crisp intensity, the look "was too vivid," says Coutard. "We'd gotten used to it the other way. We hated it, but then we got used to it."

Other extras include an audio commentary by New York University professor Robert Stam that is often interesting and sometimes wildly speculative; the material itself seems to deliberately defy such reductive analysis. A second disc contains several Contempt-related short films and interviews, some of which were cobbled together at the time of the film's release, probably for promotional purposes. The shorts are interesting primarily as a glimpse of how such a film was publicized in the early Sixties.

A French-TV interview with Godard at the time of Contempt's release offers an image of the auteur decked out in dark suit and shades, seeming more like a young, shy director eager to peddle his wares than the full-blown revolutionary he would soon become. The Dinosaur and the Baby, a loosely structured conversation between Godard and Lang from 1967, frustratingly focuses more on the nature of art and the place of cinema in history than on the specifics of either director's motivation.

The interviews with Coutard, conducted recently, offer a fascinating look at the technical challenges he faced shooting a widescreen color feature on location in 1963. The very slow stocks, combined with the optical aberrations of the available lenses, gave the cinematographer plenty to deal with. He notes that it was terribly difficult to ensure a level horizon, and that the lenses created problems galore with their barreling and cushioning. Achieving the kind of camera movement Godard wanted was often extremely difficult.

That said, it's particularly amusing to hear the esteemed director Lang plays proclaim that the widescreen format is appropriate "only for snakes and funerals." Even while pushing Coutard and his crew to the limit to achieve what he wanted, Godard was also deriding the value of the effect within the film. It's the kind of self-conscious irony that defies scholarly commentary and also makes so many of Godard's films inspiring to watch.

- Jon Silberg

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.