The Love of Antagonism in Le Mepris (Contempt)
by Todd McGowan
Certainly the most conspicuous dimension of Jean-Luc Godard's refusal of the Hollywood aesthetic is his departure from traditional narrative structure. Godard does not begin with exposition and then proceed to lay down a straightforward narrative arc. Instead, the exposition often lasts throughout the film, and the narrative circles back on itself rather than moving forward toward a clear resolution. As David Bordwell puts it in his analysis of Godard's deployment of narrative, Godard delays and distributes his exposition more than any other director. For Bordwell, Godard is a representative figure of art-film narration, a narration that he opposes to that of the classical Hollywood type. But Godard's distance from Hollywood should not be measured primarily by his attitude toward narrative. It is instead his insistence on depicting sexual antagonism in his early films that separates him not only from the Hollywood aesthetic but from most auteurs outside of Hollywood as well.
The fundamental form that contemporary ideology takes is the idea that the romantic union has the ability to resolve antagonism. Even as belief in social authorities wanes, the belief in the complementary partner who would resolve the subject's lack in a romantic union remains almost perfectly unassailed. The idea of the soulmate penetrates the most cynical veneer, and Hollywood plays an essential role in sustaining this idea. More than providing spectators with a sense of social stability and meaning through narrative, Hollywood cinema supplies them with the ideology of romance. Godard's early films represent a response to the predominance of this ideology.
One of the recurring ideas in the early films of Godard is their insistence on the antagonism that haunts every couple. This is evident in À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960), Une Femme Est une Femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961), Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), Alphaville (1965), and Pierrot le Fou (1965), among many others. In his films, desires never match up no matter how ideal a couple may seem. Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963) shows this disjunction of desire through the relationship between Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille Javal (Brigitte Bardot). The film depicts the deterioration of their marriage, and it reveals the roots of this deterioration in the interplay of their desires, desires that resist complementarity rather than facilitating it. Their relationship plays itself out against the backdrop of Paul's decision to work on rewriting the script for a film version of The Odyssey being directed by Fritz Lang (played by himself) and produced by American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), who hires Paul to fix the film. Neither Paul nor Camille have a sense of what the other really wants, and this ignorance leaves them completely isolated as desiring subjects. And yet, at the same time, both believe that they do know what the other wants, and it is this shared belief that ultimately destroys their relationship. As Godard shows, it is the attempt to fill the emptiness of one's desire with an actual object that destroys romance, though this is precisely what cinema typically offers its spectators.
After the opening credit sequence (in which the credits are spoken rather than written), the film begins with Paul and Camille in bed together. Though this opening scene seems to show Paul and Camille experiencing a kind of happiness that they would subsequently lose, it already exposes the antagonism that exists between them. Here, even at this early point, their desires are completely at odds. At the precise moment that Paul believes he is giving Camille what she wants, he reveals to her that he fails utterly to love her in the way that she wants to be loved. Godard reveals this through their verbal interaction in the scene. Camille asks Paul a series of questions about his feelings toward the various parts of her body if he loves her shoulders, her breasts, her legs, and so on. Each time, Paul avows his love for the particular body part. After Paul responds affirmatively to all of the questions, Camille then asks him, Donc tu m'aimes totalement? [Then you love me totally?]. Paul answers, Je t'aime totalement, tendrement, tragiquement [I love you totally, tenderly, tragically]. Here, Paul seems to express total love for Camille - precisely what we would assume that she wants to hear. However, as Paul is speaking, Camille looks down away from his face, seemingly disappointed with this response. This show of disappointment stems from Paul's belief that she constitutes a whole that he can love totally.
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