The tragedy of the goddess in Contempt (1964): Camille’s insistent theme.

rev., January 30, 2016.

Once again, listening to a commentary over the DVD version of Jean Luc Godard’s Contempt (1964), I protest. The commentary was all about how throughout the movie Godard was commenting on this or that aspect of the health of the film industry, and as such it was entirely anecdotal and exterior to the movie. Nowhere in the commentary did this academic approach say anything about how the movie was actually filmed, and why it works as a movie. So I have to give it my treatment. Again, according to my theory, though I agree with Belting that a movie, because it shares real time with us, for a period of time, seems to us like a dream in offering access to the lives of others that real life does not, it is also true that throughout the modern period the structural unconscious of film remained light, and not time, and that by and large all modernist directors feared that the characters, dialog, plot or whatever, those elements of the film that speak directly to the audience, would not be enough to communicate to them the full scope of the drama. For this, then, art direction began to be developed in which the concerns of explicit text of the movie could be doubled up and reinforced, and foreshadowed and recalled, through a constant playing with the properties of the set, then those set in conventional genre sequences. In this way, by this play, hints and questions were raised up around the explicit scene, to mentally deepen the scene, to build up suspense, and to make the subsequent events entirely believable when they happen. This is how I map it out


This means: the viewer with eye and senses takes in the explicit text, with all of its moving parts (actors, action, dialog etc), and that alone is pleasurable, but it is not enough to make a movie a movie. In order for a movie in time to penetrate to one’s soul it must be taken up by the mind behind the eye, which is in some ways processing the movie vis a vis other movies, possibly working against the movie intertextually, and so in that turning away seeks reinforcement of the explicit in the tacit meaning of the movie embedded in the background of the movie, in its properties, its cinematography, its wardrobe, its art direction etc. This is why for me while we remain in the auteur-uber-alles era in academically-trained movie historians, for me a movie is an entirely collaborative effort with the director having only the final, managerial say in bringing it all together. From this point of view, however, there is the explicit movie, which merits review, but then, to get the full effect, and get at the full meaning of the explicit text, one has to go to the subtext. This is certainly true in genre movies, where a convention only makes sense vis a vis a convention as played out in other movies. But in art house movies too, directors felt, rightly or wrongly, to get down to pure film, the explicit text had to be effaced, and made cryptic, usually by the interference of purely filmic devices, most of which looks stilted in retrospect, but then also by symbolism embedded in the backdrop properties.


That is, the explicit text effaced presents itself to the confused viewer, the viewer now turning away from it, because his or her expectations of a movie were not met, and in that turn away they usually swing back through more mindful consideration of the movie, which in turn swings back to focus on the backdrop symbolism as the key to the secret code of the movie. If they remain open-minded and relational to the movie, this is fine. The problems only start when they fixate on its effacement, deploring it, so abandon the movie as the source of meaning, and think it lies somewhere out in the world of the director.


In this way, we get to the point where a code-breaker has so fixed the movie that is simply becomes a document of directorial intent, in the context of which conspiracy theory can thrive, and it relates as a document only of his or her views of some issue of the time in the world (thus the absurd Apollo 11 interpretations of The Shining, for example, which see the movie as a confession by Kubrick that he did stage the fake moon landing cinematically with the help of the US government).

But my argument is simple: the movie is the movie, and it is the main source of meaning in the movie. It may provide an interesting gloss that something in the movie is related to something on the mind of the director with regard to the world of the time without, but it does not say much about the movie itself. For this reason, it is necessary to submit Contempt to an agency approach, measuring if the director did something of interest with the background elements of the movie, in order to enhance or even explain the agency of explicit material, which remains still somewhat confusing.

I guess we can start with this rather odd shot, I’m pretty sure mostly missed by most viewers. It comes after the group has decamped to Prokosch’s garden for tea, and the husband is late. As a result, Camille is pissed off at him.conte-4In it, Camille (Bardot) is hidden behind a tree, sitting on a piece of garden furniture, paging through a coffee table book on Roman art. The view gives us a nice look at her tremendously shapely legs, but the rest of her is effaced, with some breast showing. She is being aloof, because she is angry, and now she is distracting herself. But what does it mean? Well, this book plays a surprisingly large supporting role in the movie. The book has been offered to Paul, to give him some ideas about the Odyssey. But, here it is again, and this is a scene in Prokosch’s house, where Paul is a bit embarassed because he had made a pass at the assistant, and it did not go over, and now they stand by the window not doing business but paging through a book of erotic paintings from Pompeiiconte-5The book then plays a major part in the bewilderingly complicated, and quite long, fight scene between Paul and Camille, back at their apartment. First Paul looks at it, and then, later, Camilleconte-6In this context, they represent a different state of being in their relationship, a time, perhaps, when it was alive sexually, and now it is not. Camille knows why, Paul is confused. In the book, then, they hark back to earlier days, when things were good. At the same time, the book is pornographic, in the Roman sense, and perhaps hinted at bounty outside of marriage, that they might be interested in exploiting. But, then, the main point is that this is Roman painting, and Prokosch thought it would help Paul isualize the Odyssey better. The fact that disputed interpretations of the Odyssey act as subtext to what is going on with Camile and Paul is actually part of the explicit script, so no need to address it, but this Romaness, this is something else.

It would appear that Romaness represents three phases of romanticism (to borrow from Neoplatonic theory), the goddess phase, when the man adored everyhing about a woman, also called the honeymoon phase; then the regular-marriage phase, when the woman has settled into a certain role, and has a certain function, as do other women; and then there is the exploitation phase, when woman returns to being just prey, to be trophied by hunting men. The movie as a whole seems to be about the slippage of a marriage from phase one to phase two, then three. That is, Camille appears to miss the time when she was the goddess, and perhaps wants her goddess status back. But it is gone, in spite of her beauty. Then, Paul, he wants the marriage to work, but perhaps only to have her in that role. Then, too, as her ideal has fallen, she toys or flirts with the possiblities that might come her way, should she break away; and Paul, now a screenwriter, and meeting lots and lots of beautiful women, is already toying with the idea of playing with lots of them. In an odd way, then, the images in the book, as they are flipped through, and shown straight up, and being paged away, are tristereoscopic, that is, they all have three dimensions, they represent in full the complexity of their longings at just this minute, the pictures therefore serve as “predicament pictures,” capturing in fullness the conflicting emotions that they are both caught in.

Visually, the Pompeiian nudes compare most directly on screen to pinup adoration goddess shots of Bardot in the nude, but posed with only her behind showing, most of the time. These shots intersperse the text of the movie, usually to remember that time when they were living together in spontaneous and reckless love, like this one (but there are others)conte-7The opening sequence of the movie in fact shows that adoring the goddess is one of the major tasks of the husband in this marriage, as she rather insecuredly itemizes her physical beauties, asking if he likes them. It’s an odd scene, and it also, inside of it, color shifts from red, to blue, to real color, which is odd. A big question in the movie is if she is going to go to Capri or not, because that is where the movie is being shot. She defers, but then goes: of course she does, it is goddess country, and there she has moments of being the goddess again, striking the same poseconte-8In all this, there is strong undercurrent of the myth of Actaeon and Diana, goddess of the hunt, in fact represented in the form here of Artemisconte-9And then an odd shot of statues in the fieldsconte-10In the story of Diana, Actaeon profaned nature by seeing her in the nude, because the purity of nature is something that is beyond man, and should not be seen by man. It would appear that Camille is of that sort, a goddess, and one feeling misunderstood and now appreciated. And yet this man had the gall to marry her, and see her in the nude, and make love to her, and now she despises him, if only because he is no longer the worshipper of her. This seems like an odd take on the movie, the angry goddess theme, but it seems to work. When they decamp to Capri, Paul becomes rather stiff and pathetic, he realizes the game is up. He becomes only a spectator of a life that is returning to its goddess state, and leaving him. This odd shot has always confused me, now I think it is Godard trying to recreate a classic painting, with Actaeon gazing out upon natureconte-11Without research, the shot is comparable to the set up of the scene in most classicizing painting, for example, Jacob Jordaens version, violating gazer left, nature rightconte-12When he gets inside, here too, he gazes, rather dumbstruck by it all. I have in my reckoning a notion that to live in a very beautiful place can be problematic. I call such places “natural theaters,” they were much valued as sacred places in ancient culture, and Capri of course has been the resort of the wealthy and playground of the horny for over 2000 years. But a natural theater presents you with such a surfeit of nature it can empty you out, and make it impossible to get anything done. It is the big picture, but one which paralyzes, and creates danger. Clearly, this is what this view out this window is, on first view, it is awe-inspiring, but, then, if just one little thing goes wrong in paradise, it can curdle quickly, to become a hell conte14he stands exactly like Actaeon over Camille as she has impulsively sought to catch some rays, by stripping naked, and he is rather taken aback by the fact that she has done this outside of their planning or life, just by herself, to glory in her own physicalityconte-13even when she goes, after that, down the house, then down the hill, and all those dangerous crags, she strips and dives in, and we see her swim, naked conte-14it recreates one of the rush shots that so amused Prokosch earlier, a woman swimming naked in the clear blue water, a goddess image.conte-15So, on one level, Camille is the goddess, this movie is a reenactment of the myth of Actaeon and Diana (events of which happened up the road at Nemi, not Capri, but close enough), and it is about a goddess who rages that she has fallen off the pedestal, as her husband runs after other goddesses. But the complicating factor is that while at face value and read historically a eidol of a god or goddess was meant to serve man as a role model to emulate, in modern movies, especially modern horror movies, a bust of a classical statue usually signifies that the man of the house has come to his power illegitimiately, and that he is an exploiter (see my note). Thus, on one level, the gods, but, on the modern level, the exploiting fates conte-16Which brings us to the second level of goddess culture, the regular marriage phase, when women in the modern world just become operatives, beings with functions and duties like anyone else, and thus live trapped by their treatment in an objectifying universe. Prokofsky clearly sees women as tools, and showing this involves, counterpointing the statues and the pictures of erotic love, strange bodily gestures that signify modern instrumentalismconte-17the oddest one of these “functioning” gestures occurs in the labyrinthian bath argument of Camille and Paul. At one point, he has stripped and bathed, but without soap, so just a rinse off, and now walks around the house in a large towel that becomes, now, a toga, so they are functional gods in a Roman household. She too then has to bathe, so also strips, but wears a large red robe. Once, when they come together, she makes a strange playful gesture, but also one that is possibly aggressive and dismissiveconte-18I cant quite figure this one out, but it does lift a leg into the between the legs of the man, so has to be considered a sexual invitation. But at the same time, it has a goosestep quality about it, indicating power. There is also something forlorn and mechanical in her use of it, as if it is one of her old tricks, but it does not work anymore. Later, she wears/unwears this same towel to eaves drop on him answer the phone, it’s her motherconte-19and later still when she returns to bed, kicks him away, in the movie’s most exposing view of her upskirt powers.conte-20then she really gets mad, and, in a fateful move in a marriage, takes up her sheets and pillows, and decamps to sleep on the couch. But, here, she adopts a goddess pose, as if, now, taunting himconte-21It is also done in the shadow of their very own lares, representing her goddess state, a statue of a Roman cast, of a nude. In this shot, it declares her the goddess estranged. But in an earlier shot, it underscores, as it would in most movies, her having been reduced to an object, and now resorting to trying on wigs to spice things up.conte-22Also, when he is talking to her from out in the other room, he plunks on the statue, it is hollow, and there is a clear sign here that he understands some magic has departed the relationship, and she has reverted to an angry, exploited thingconte-23This interaction with the statue in this way may also indicate that Paul himself, however upset he is by the turn of events, has also faded from the cult of the goddess, and now sees her more as a useful tool. And this, after all, brings us to the heart of the flare up which causes the break, on the few days covered in the scenario of the movie. That Paul has wolfish qualities looking after other women, is made apaprent by his pass at Prokosch’s assistant, this too done in the company of more functionary Roman goddesses, used here as it were as concierges of seductionconte-24Their whole interaction, in a strange scene, is worked out through the statuary, as functional in nature, he is trying to hit on herconte-25at the end of it, he actually puts his hand on her ass, and later thinks that maybe Camille saw this, or heard about it, and THIS was the event that caused her to suddenly decide, I hate youconte-26But the truth is actually deeper, and perhaps even below the level of consciousness of Paul. Earlier, when she shows up, he introduces her to Fritz Lang, and there is a poster of Psycho in the backgroundconte-27This cannot be a coincidence. In this shot, Lang is Hitchcock, Paul is Norman, and, I would guess, Camille is the victims of Norman, Marianne Craneconte-28The way in this shot that he smiles looking at her smile at him suggests that he has begun to make use of her as a go-between to help seduce producers and others to get ahead in the business. This is perhaps something that is below his level of consciousness, but the juxtaposition of property, the look on Norman’s face, and his, makes this clear. Then, even stranger, is that the movie makes REPEATED use of a poster for a movie that perhaps was a good seller at the time, but which has faded into obscurity, Hatari. It back drops, and gives meaning to the first meeting between Prokosch and Camille, that he is the hunter, and she the hunted, the girlfriend perhaps looking on with alarm, seeing his hunting tactics, offering rides, to lifeconte-29It is right there, when the decision is made for Prokosch to drive Camille, and Paul will walk. Prokosch is even more of John Wayne, in command of the hunt, doing well in the hunt, having landed his prey, she the angry prey, glaring at Paul, as he walks sheepishly by. THIS is the moment when she began to hate him, and she began to hate him because she suspects that she is being used by her husband as a pimp would use a whore to seduce a producer to make the business between all of them go better her way. This is not what she signed up for.conte-30Even later, after their fight, when they go out to the movies, and he, again, impassively, with resignation, but still all but unconsciously using her, sits her with others, Hatari, same poster, shows up in the theater, overseeing the scheming of the hunting men, this time though to target clearly on Paulconte-31(While it is always possible that the use of this poster is purely incidental, as it was a 1962 film that was doing quite well, that seems unlikely in a director so careful as Godard. Perhaps it simply symbolizes old films, the films of Howard Hawks, with all that adventure and character and things, the things that Prokosch wants, and he is not getting. But if so it then could be dialected against Camille’s look of death and the coy way in which romance between John Wayne and Elsa Martinelli is carried out in Hatari. That is a relationship that never at any time rises above the functionary state of modern life, it is a pedestrian affair, nice, cozy, charming, but I must say John Wayne’s way of romance struck me (age 9) as very odd. That said, Hatari is really known for its action sequences, and for the fact that the hunters were collecting specimens of wild beasts for American zoos. Overwhelmingly, then, for me, if this poster is included, juxtaposed to the complication that Paul has cast Camille into, it represents her as hunted animal). It is amusing that posters for Hatari did in fact show the hunted animal fighting back, knocking at their jeep, so a visual parallel perhaps (more so even with the odd crash scene at the end, which only makes sense in the logic of the myth of the violated goddess)


I’m sure it is also entirely incidental, but a big part of the Hatari sales pitch was that of voice, of calling out the word hatari, which means, danger, if I remember. So it is a movie about a call, as is Mepris, a crie di coeur (in any case, this brush with more popular, mainstream culture, nonetheless reminds me that popular and arty culture are always much closer together than they imagine themselves to be in their times, when the categorical bean counters keeping things straight are alive to referee them, But I suppose I could make a series of direct visual links between Hatari and Mepris, but I wont).con-35

Which brings us back to her and the book in the trees. In addition to suspecting Paul of having pimped her out, he is now doubly in trouble because Paul is late in getting there, and she suspects that he delayed to give Prokosch time to do something with his wife, or for her to make her play, to seal the deal. She is digusted. Like a hunted animal, then, she hides in the bushes, and mourns her goddess life, or, conversely, says to herself, if he’s going to play the field, then so can Iconte-4The point of this treatment, deriving from the book of Pompeii erotica, is that while Godard souped up his explicit text with lots of filmic literalist devices, on the surface of things, deep down in this outing he proceeded much in the manner of a traditional modernist movie maker, making use of properties to signify complexities of hidden emotions otherwise not communicated by voice or body. But, then, the final proof of his grasp of the property conventions of film at the time, is that he also makes distinctive, instrumental, even inspired use of the lamp. Lamps in movies serve a set function, to distribute light in a shot, but, symbolically, “under the lamp” are private, intimate events that we are being let in on. Then too lamps signify thinking, and the three-dimensionality of a figure, or a person. Lamps signify the power of the house, so when one falls, that represents chaos. In this movie, Godard stages their tug of war over whether or not she will go to Capri in a pan shot across a lamp. It’s rather too arty, but still. Set in the middle of the shot, so much lamp serves the destructive function of the property, a sign of a break, of destruction.conte-34At the same time, it’s clear Godard knew that a lit lamp indicated ideas, or I have an idea, because as they go back and forth, and he tries to get out of her what she does not want to let out, he keeps flicking it on and off, on and off, indicating a deconstruction of this functionconte-35They are trying to communicate, but fail to communicate, and only come to some impassed understanding to disagree. In the sequence, the lamp has magically been transformed from a symbol of having an idea, into a symbol of breakdown of communication. She is now the embodiment of that new womanconte-37For all this, then, the properties of the movie, and their manipulation according to time-tested rules, sometimes deconstructed and subverted by Godard, but for the most part well isntrumentalized according to the film conventions of the time, tell me that the whole movie is an essay on the nature of love, even the three kinds of love, agape (goddess love), fraternity (functionary love) and eros (skirtchasing lust), and the tragedy of a goddess, who, resisting her fall from goddess state, recklessly tears down a marriage, to see what will happen. And that is why she is killed in the end, as with Actaeon, so with all in this one, to toy with the goddess, even if it is the goddess in oneself, is to invite death and destruction. This is why I think that Contempt may be the saddest movie ever made (acknowledging in 1963 we are dealing with a prefeminist goddess theory position espoused by men): think of it, you (the male viewer) are married to Bridget Bardot, and one morning she wakes up and realizes she doesn’t love you anymore, and there is nothing that can be done for it, as a goddess it is her prerogative, sudden decision, done–that has to be one of the worst mornings of your life.

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