Sixty years is a long time. Wars can be fought and regimes can fall, and if your picture can survive that long as a critical darling, it has to be recognised as a classic. Such is the case with Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 French new wave film Le Mepris (“Contempt”), which has received a new 4K restoration for its birthday.
Based on the 1954 novel Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia, Le Mepris stars Brigitte Bardot as Camille, whose playwright husband Paul (Michel Piccoli) has been hired to rewrite a film of Homer’s epic novel The Odyssey, directed by the legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang (playing himself) and produced by boorish and tempestuous American Jerry (Jack Palance). Paul has no real interest in the script or cinema itself, but takes the job so he and Camille can pay off their flat. However, the pair’s relationship begins to quickly deteriorate once Paul begins to write something he ostensibly hates.
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Godard’s film is a highly impressive piece of cinema that works both as a simple relationship drama and a critique of attitudes towards movies, with a loose and existential atmosphere that makes it an intoxicating watch. What’s interesting is the way a sense of a language barrier is introduced, so the focus is often on body language, not unsurprising given the stunning Bardot. Camille and Paul don’t speak English and Jerry doesn’t speak French, so a translator has to repeat everything said in the relevant languages, which after a while seem to fade away in your mind in favour of the sumptuous visuals.
The breakdown between Camille and Paul isn’t down to one thing. She’s certainly attracted to Jerry and his bright red convertible, and Paul and Jerry’s assistant Francesca seem to have something going on, but this is bigger than infidelity and sex, it’s about something breaking down beyond repair, and the realisation that everything is falling apart. So much of this is realised through Godard’s direction and use of camera movements; there’s a scene where Camille and Paul argue in their apartment while doing mundane things and the camera tracks their movement across the floor – it’s a spectacular sequence and helps convey the cracks starting to appear.
Bardot and Piccoli are a brilliantly matched couple, and you feel their chemistry dissipate as the film goes on, with Bardot’s naturally innate heat attracting Jerry. Palance doesn’t really do a lot besides act overly masculine and shout at things, and with both male leads it’s an interesting look at different sides of masculinity and how we react to them, especially as both of them are capable of physical violence.
Raoul Coutard’s photography is gorgeous, with a deceptively simple style and a rich colour palette, with hues of blue and red dominating the screen. Georges Delerue’s score is magnificent, with his warm but melancholy theme for Camille fulfilling its dramatic potential by having all the emotions percolating just below the surface, ready to burst out at any moment. The theme is so good, it was later reused by Martin Scorsese for his 1995 film Casino.
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Studiocanal have brought Le Mepris to UHD with a new 4K restoration and it looks gorgeous, so rich and affecting. It sounds great too, with the mono soundtrack perfectly representing the growl of Palance’s sports car and Delerue’s flowing score. The disc includes a small but thoughtful selection of extras, with an introduction by critic Colin McCabe, and two films that feature contemporary looks at the film and its production.
Sixty years on, Le Mepris is still an absolute classic, and it looks better than ever with this new restoration. You need to own this.