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CONTEMPT

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Michael Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Georgia Moll, Fritz Lang
Director:  Jean-Luc Godard
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  December 10, 2002

“I like gods.  I know exactly how they feel.”

Film ***

Contempt stands out as an oddity in the catalog of Jean-Luc Godard for many reasons.  Its CinemaScope presentation and big name producers (the legendary Carlo Ponti included) mark it as a major studio film from one of cinema’s most independent filmmakers.  There is a care and planning evident in many sequences that seem contrary to Godard’s style of New Wave off-the-cuff filmmaking.  It featured well known stars, including one American, Jack Palance.

But these examples of stylings are just tools to Godard; nothing more or less than the film in his camera or the scissors in his editing room.  Contempt is a large look at movie making, but though it looks at big concepts, it does so with the scrutiny of a microscope.  Many things about the movie don’t seem consistent with Godard, but at the same time, his personal voice may have never been so strongly heard.

The sketchy plot involves making a movie out of Homer’s Odyssey.  Struggling screenwriter Paul Javal (Piccoli) finds himself drawn into a conflicted world, as the project is guided by two visions that are polar opposites.  American producer Jeremiah Prokosch (Palance) envisions a Hercules-styled tale, with action and swashbuckling, and probably as little to do with the original Greek text as he can get away with.  The German director (Fritz Lang as himself), wants to make art.  Between them emerges the argument every film probably suffers:  commercial value versus integrity.

But this plot is actually only scenery for the real growing conflict:  the one between Paul and his beautiful wife, Camille (Bardot).  The second act of the film is pure Godard; we watch the couple talk and bicker their way through volumes of nothingness that accomplish nothing except to bare insecurities, fester jealousies, and wallow in unease.  Was Paul too eager to let Prokosch drive off with his wife in his fancy two-seater car?  Was his decision a testament of trust, or of his willingness to do ANYTHING for his career?  He may not know for sure himself, which doesn’t comfort Camille any.

Contempt may refer to any one of different scenarios in the film, but it is equally applicable to the behind the scenes drama that Godard found himself in.  His producers pushed him unwillingly into using the widescreen format…Lang’s words in the film possibly echo Godard’s own dismissal of the format:  “it’s good for snakes and funerals, but not people”.  In some scenes with Camille and Paul, he even stretches the point by keeping both protagonists so far apart that even in widescreen, one or the other is off camera.  A pan & scan version of this film would have so much to compensate for that the constant moving might inspire motion sickness!

Even more noteworthy is his producers’ insistence at having Bardot naked in at least one scene…after all, that’s what she had built her reputation on.  Godard consented by inserting a fresh scene near the beginning, which, despite Ms. Bardot’s inarguably beautiful form, is no more erotic than an autopsy.  You’ll see it for yourself when you watch the film, and you’ll have to admire Godard’s chutzpah.

A constant experimenter, though, Godard continually found ways to do things a little differently, even within the confines of a more major production.  The opening credits are spoken, for example, and not printed.  When the camera in the opening shot tracks, then eventually focuses on us (Homer’s Cyclops, perhaps?  Or might that actually be the monocle-laded Lang?), we know that he is examining the process of making movies, which is the catalyst for all the drama within.  Does he suggest that soulless money men always win out over those who want to create art?  Camille expresses dissatisfaction and disappointment with Paul’s commercial adventures to the point where…she ends up with the very producer that forced him to think that way.  All’s fair in love and movies.

Contempt is not a perfect film, and as said, as much a curiosity piece for how dissimilar it is to Godard’s other works as it is indicative of them.  It is, however, a thoughtful look at the pains creators feel in giving birth to their cinema, and provides Godard with a definitive voice throughout a deceptively free form narrative style.

Video ****

This new high definition anamorphic transfer from Criterion is stunning…easily the best this film has looked in years.  Godard’s picture is a bright, vivid smorgasbord of colors, and each shade comes across with clarity and integrity.  No bleeding, softness, or artifacts of any kind mar the images.  The print is crisp and clean with very, very few telltale signs of aging.  A first rate effort all the way!

Audio **

As with most mono soundtracks, there’s not much to get excited about here.  Dialogue is clean and clear in both original Italian and English dubbed versions (though the English soundtrack is not quite as good overall).  Background noise is noticeable from time to time, but not prolific; you really only take note of it during silent stretches.  No real complaints…it’s a workable, if unremarkable audio offering.

Features ****

You gotta love these two disc offerings from Criterion!  Disc One features a superb audio commentary by film scholar Robert Stam, who fleshes out the viewing experience with lots of interesting tidbits, historical facts, and information about the personalities involved in making the film.  This track will be a huge benefit to cinema students.

But Disc Two has even more, starting with a 60 minute conversation between two cinema legends, Godard and Lang, entitled “The Dinosaur and the Baby”.  It will have movie buffs salivating.  There is also a short film Encounter With Fritz Lang from 1963, two short documentaries involving Godard and Contempt entitled Bardot et Godard and Paparazzi.  There is a vintage Godard interview, plus a fresh new interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, a demonstration of widescreen vs. full screen (THANK YOU, CRITERION!), and the original theatrical trailer…which, like everything else about the film, is just a little bit different.

Summary:

Criterion offers Contempt in a way that shows nothing but love to movie buffs.  This New Wave classic is presented with a stunning new transfer and a top notch package of extras…whether you’re a fan of Jean-Luc Godard or just beginning to discover his works, there’s possibly no better way to experience one of his films that this terrific DVD offering.