Le Mepris (1963) is the outstanding directorial achievement of Jean-Luc Godard’s long and distinguished career. The sheer spectacle, beautiful and atmospheric music and vibrant dialog make the film an undoubted classic of cinema.
The film stars the outrageously gorgeous Brigitte Bardot as Camille in her most famous role, as the promiscuous wife of writer Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli). Jack Palance plays the supporting role of the abnoxious American Producer, Prokosch, who hires Paul to rewrite his adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, thanks to his infatuation with Camille. Le Mepris also features a rare acting appearance for famed German director Fritz Lang, a real life idol and mentor to Godard, as the director of Prokosch’s Odyssey.
As with most Godard films we are introduced to his interesting and original method of storytelling. From a static wide shot, a camera tracks a woman, dollying towards us from background, to mid-ground, as a voice over introduces the major players aand technical talent of the movie, as their credits are displayed on the screen. Once the dolly movement has come to an end, the operator quickly spins his camera down and onto us, recognising our presence. This will be a story about the movies.
From the start of the film there is barely room to breath as dialog shoots through the air constantly, often supported by the mysterious and grand score by Piero Piccioni and Georges Delerue. We are introduced to the stereotypical smoking, suited 1960s writer Paul and his new partner, the oily and clammy producer Prokosch.
Through lengthy translation sequences for the benefit of our French and American characters, Paul, Prokosch and his assistant, walk through a beautiful French town discussing the situation of Prokosch’s troubled adaptation of The Odyssey, which was struggling with supposed sloppy writing and the intransigence of the artistic director Fritz Lang.
The first scene of introductions between Paul and Prokosch represents the only scene where the adaptation of The Odyssey is seriously discussed between writer and producer, as the film goes awry almost forgotten as Prokosch is introduced to Paul’s beautiful wife Camille. Camille and Prokosch take an immediate like to one another, Prokosch falling for her beauty and Camille for his shiny red Alfa Romeo, she runs her fingers against it with a smile.
Immediately Paul now has a crucial, yet seemingly trivial decision to make, as Prokosch suggests they go for a drink at his house to discuss the film, but his car only has room for one. Should Camille travel alone with the creepy and suave American or should they take a taxi together. It is at this point that Camille becomes uneasy as she realises the intentions of the producer and Paul is blind, as he freely gives Prokosch permission to drive off with his wife.
Paul finally catches up with his wife and Prokosch some time later at the producer’s home only to find a dejected and uncomfortable greeting from his wife. She is upset with the rejection and abandonment of her husband, who has thrown her to the wolf. Paul has unwittingly sparked a descent which will impact all of our character’s futures.
We are then soon treated to an extremely lengthy sequence at the couple’s apartment. Camille and Paul flit in and out of the many rooms of their luxurious apartment, as they go through a full range of emotions for one another, ranging from love and devotion to that of cold and brutal dislike and distrust.
We see their love, distrust and inner pain and turmoil like a ‘fly on the wall’, as Godard refuses to cut as we slowly follow them and wait in each of the rooms they inhabit. Never in a film, have we seen such natural conversation and actions as both characters chat about their sudden quarrels and troubled love, as they bathe, set the table, fight, reconcile, make threats and storm off from each other. They cannot escape each other in the apartment and neither can we.
As the apartment sequence drags on Paul becomes more and more paranoid and afraid of his marriage to Camille, as she continues to show him the cold shoulder. What can he have done to deserve this? Should they have stayed at home and continued suffering writing crime novels? Has Prokosch come onto Camille? Did she want him to? Camille refuses to answer his questions directly, as we and he become more despondent and angry at her impertinence.
Godard ends the apartment sequence with a lovely piece of visual filmmaking as Paul sits Camille down at a table an demands that she answer his questions as to their marriage and her claims that she no longer loves him. We stay in profile of the pair and slide from one side to the other as the questions are asked and answered, while Paul turns a table lamp on and off as if to indicate the truth of her answers and his ideas and notions as to her troubled feelings toward him.
Paul’s mind becomes more clouded and tortured, as Godard cuts in shots of a naked Camille, looking imploringly at the camera. We had seen these extracts at the beginning, as Paul imagined his wife while away from her, now we have them with great frequency as she denies her love and body to him. Will she offer it Prokosch? Will she offer it to more?
Our sympathy grows with Paul as Prokosch invites Camille and him to Capri, where the next leg of filming will begin. Prokosch makes his intentions for Camille clear, as he repeatedly asks through his assistant if she will be coming with them. Paul is now aware of the threat, yet he is cautious to protect his $10,000 stake in the film, so avoids defending his marital position.
Paul’s repeated cowardly submission to Prokosch makes Camille grow further away from him and towards Prokosch, who it is clear she doesn’t truly desire. It is almost like she is punishing Paul deliberately, for failing to swoop in and claim her for himself, as she agrees to go to Capri and be a guest of Prokosch.
It is not until we reach the beautiful Mediterranean Capri, that we realise that Paul and Camille’s circumstance is an allegory of The Odyssey itself. Paul represents Odysseus, an heroic man on his journey back from Troy and Camille is reflected by Odysseus’s wife Penelope, as she attracts the attention of opportunistic suitors, who she will fall for.
Capri is the point of no return for Camille and Paul. Before arriving at the spectacular seaside villa of Prokosch, Paul had hoped that they may yet reconcile. He goes all out to win her back, but all is too late, as he catches her alone with the producer, she kisses him to antagonise her husband.
With complete desperation, Paul refuses to have any further part in the film for intellectual reasons, in support of the pure director Lang. When in reality, while he does hold ideals of a pure retelling of The Odyssey, he is really giving up the commission to reconcile with his wife.
Paul realises that all is lost as he searches for his wife to tell her the news of his exit from the film, only to find her sunbathing naked on the roof of the villa, with only a book to cover her nakedness. The nudity and exposure of Camille on top of the property of the producer, symbolises his victory and triumph over Paul, he has full control of the ‘trophy’ wife and the love and sex held back from Paul at the apartment.
Paul pleads one final time with his wife, as she swims, liberated, naked in the sea. He carries a gun with him, which he plans to kill Prokosch with, like Odysseus killed Penelope’s suitors, but Camille disarms it to prevent him, as he falls asleep. Paul cannot fulfill the prophecy, with which he had been engaged to write, he has failed and lost.
However, there will be justice for those who have sinned. As Prokosch and Camille attempt to join a motorway from a petrol station they are killed in a gruesome car crash. Prokosch has paid for his devilish adulterous intentions and Camille is punished for her abandonment of her husband and his love.
Le Mepris is a spectacular story of a love lost and the destructive capabilities of the film business and the many seedy and opportunistic characters, which languish within it. The simple understated visuals, let the incredible French locations do all the work, in time with the beautiful music and dialog heavy performances of Bardot and Piccoli. An everyday story, told in a spectacular setting, full of beauty and mystery, from the faces of the characters, to the deep blue calming waves of the ocean.