Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt), made in 1963, is, among other things, a meditation on Homer’s Odyssey, a celebration of Mediterranean landscape and culture and an exposition of the filmmaker’s love/hate relationship with America.
Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is invited by American film producer Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite the screenplay of The Odyssey because he feels the version being filmed by the director, Fritz Lang – who plays himself – is too intellectual.
The American wants more sex in Lang’s Homer – and not just more sex, but more of everything, without being able to define what he wants more of, he just wants more – and although Paul is reluctant to undermine Lang, the money Jerry offers him for joining the project, which Paul thinks will please his beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), overcomes his doubt and guilt.
In fact, Paul becomes so impressed by Jerry’s money and power, so enamoured with the glamour of filmmaking, so anxious not to alienate his benefactor, that he encourages his wife to go along with the advances of the voracious American, virtually offering her to him on a plate, prompting her to lose respect and love for her husband, to feel the ‘contempt’ which constitutes the title of the film.
Paul and Camille’s disintegrating marriage – revealed in an extraordinary 30-minute sequence of fighting, insults and arguing – encourages the writer to accept Jerry’s interpretation of The Odyssey as a tale of a poisoned marriage, of Penelope’s infidelity and Odysseus’ ennui.
For Jerry, Odysseus leaves Ithaca to fight the Trojan war because he is bored with Penelope, and stays away for so long because he can’t stand the prospect of returning to his wife, who far from being faithful and patient is, according to Jerry, resentful of Odysseus for abandoning her and cuckolds him with the suitors.
Lang, the personification of European sophistication and old world charm, always ready with a quote from Holderlin or Dante, hates this interpretation of Odysseus as a ‘modern neurotic’, but is impotent to impose his view on Jerry – the bullying, crude American film producer, who quotes trite aphorisms written on scraps of paper he keeps in his pockets, who expects the world to conform to his desires, and who ‘likes gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel.’
When Fritz Lang defends his vision of The Odyssey – ‘it’s a story of man’s fight against the gods’ – and tells Jerry that in his film ‘finally, you get the feel of Greek culture’ – Jerry says: ‘Whenever I hear the word culture, I bring out my chequebook,’ echoing Gestapo chief Hermann Goering: ‘Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver.’
The exchange is an early hint of the anti-Americanism which infamously characterises Godard’s films – though Le Mépris, infused with references to Rancho Notorious, Hatari, Bigger Than Life, Some Came Running, Rio Bravo, Griffith, Chaplin and United Artists, also shows how much Godard’s imagination has been shaped by American film and culture.
In Eloge de l’amour (2000) – in which one of the plot lines involves Spielberg Associates and Incorporated trying to buy the rights to make a French resistance movie – Godard has his protagonist Edgar say: ‘Americans have no real past… They have no memory of their own. Their machines do, but they have none personally. So they buy the past of others.’
But in Détective (1985), Godard shows his abiding love for American film and American culture by dedicating his film to John Cassavetes, Clint Eastwood and Edgar G. Ulmer.
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