Tuesday, April 1, 2008
A Conversation about "Contempt," Part III
Maddog (a far better nom de guerre for such a discourse, I should think),
You will never find me disagreeing with you when it comes to Weekend. It is the nuclear bomb planted in the heart of pre-'68 narrative cinema, including Godard's own oeuvre. As you, I, and countless Godard enthusiasts (and haters, for that matter) know, the man never returned to that kind of filmmaking again, even after 1980, when Sauve qui peut, la vie (Every Man for Himself) marked his "return" to narrative, whatever the fuck that means.
It's a little difficult to respond to your central complaint, that Contempt is boring. I'll never begrudge anyone of their opinion, but I've never found the film boring. Quite the contrary: Contempt has always been one of the most thrilling and engaging cinematic experiences I have had the pleasure to enjoy. Of course, I won't let myself off the hook so easily.
The "END OF CINEMA" concept is an intriguing entryway for discussing what is going on in Contempt. I'm with you when you key in on that moment as crucial to illuminating the film's stance on art cinema. But rather than side with Paul when he claims, "I don't think the cinema will ever die," Godard seems a bit more measured in his thoughts. I stand by my claim that on a certain level Contempt is an art film in and of itself. But I also think that Godard is being highly critical of what the art cinema can achieve. After all, Fritz Lang may be "worshipped," but Godard certainly does not present what Lang is creating as worthy of such adulation. He is in fact viciously parodying it.
Godard's best work in his early phase encompasses the tension of emotional identification and alienation. Tenderness and Godard's frequent distancing of the audience from that tenderness is what makes his deconstruction of narrative so fascinating. He distances us from Paul and Camille's disintegration through the deadpan comedy of stepping through the hole in the door, or, when Paul interrogates Camille once more about her ceasing to love him, the camera oscillates from one face to another while a lampshade separates the two lovers.
What's more, the idea of what cinema is and whether or not it is approaching an end is more ironic than you initially think. It is not as flamboyantly vicious as Weekend, and that is what distinguishes the two films when it comes to such an idea. Contempt does believe that the "art film" is dying or dead, but it approaches that notion with much more ambivalence than Weekend does. Hence, our emotional engagement with Paul and Camille, even though we are kept at arm's length. Also, the cinematography's intense sensuality, and its integration of the overwhelming power of nature as the backdrop to the film's second half, brings that ambivalence into sharper focus.
But perhaps the thing that gives the whole game away is the implementation of the score by Georges Delerue. It is one of my all-time favorites, both for its elemental qualities and how Godard uses it in the film. It is warm, sensuous, and full of feeling. It aids in engaging a tender, emotional response from the images. But Godard places it in peculiar places, and cuts it off seemingly at random. (For example, the score plays over Lang walking across the studio lot and lighting a cigarrete, a more rote exercise than the score would normally accompany.) We are constantly forced to reconsider what the music is being used for, and why it makes us feel the way we do. Delerue's music embraces "high art," and Godard then tears it up.
We haven't even gotten to how Godard manipulates Alberto Moravia's novel on which Contempt is based, but that could be moot, because I always misremembered you enjoying it. I am curious to hear if we can save Contempt for the end of cinema.