Contempt / Le Mépris
One is reminded that this is a Jean-Luc Godard film at the very beginning; a representative of the French New Wave of cinema. On the left in the distance, the talent is slowly walking toward the audience’s camera. On the right, on a long dolly-track, is a camera crew, that follows the talent. During this long shot, a voice is reading the opening credits to the audience, without ever showing the credits on the screen. All of them.
From my first viewing, I must suggest that this is not a good film to watch under the influence of prescription muscle-relaxants. It is very easy to allow one’s attention to drift at an unknowingly key moment, and spend the next several minutes thinking, “wha—?”
Even watching it again, later, not as ‘under the influence,’ I still find myself wondering: what was all of this about? Shots are generally long and leisurely. Scenes are allowed to play themselves out, with few cuts, and preferring to either move the camera about, or to leave the camera placed oddly, allowing people to wander in and out of the shot in various places as the arguments continue. It is a film produced in a completely different world to most anything out of ‘modern film.’
The short version is, an American producer, played by Jack Palance, is hiring a writer to rewrite Homer’s Odyssey in an attempt to control the great, artistic Austrian director, Fritz Lang (played by Fritz Lang.) Jack is trying for something suitable for contemporary — commercial — audiences; Fritz is trying to be himself; and the writer, Piccoli, is trying to understand the dynamics of his relationship with his wife, Bardot. Fortunately for us, the viewers, Giorgia Moll is present as the Producer’s interpreter, as Fritz tends to wander off into German, and not everything is actually captioned.
The Picture — •••½
The picture quality — varies. There is a brief title-card at the beginning indicating that some of the material in the original cut was not a part of the English release, and that this version restores those parts previously cut. I suspect that the variation in picture quality comes from the restoration of those cuts from “other sources.” The content ranges from clean HD-quality, to near-HD quality with some sharpening and mild edge enhancement, to some occasional bits that look like they were rescued from a rather old video master and upconverted to HD. The cutting-room-floor bits do look as though they have suffered more, with some scratches here and there, while the rest of the film generally looks fairly good. It’s not razor-sharp like some modern films, and there’s something a little odd about the picture that makes me think that some of the shots may have been noise-reduced. Oddly. Certainly, the early CinemaScope lenses used in this film had a lot of optical distortions that we, the modern viewing audience, are less familiar with — particularly the wide-angle lenses. The color shows some variation, within-shot, and there are some sequences where there is some horizontal gate-weave. Film-grain also varies considerably, but generally from shot-to-shot; not within-shot.
The feature itself is encoded in the AVC codec, generally at about 30-40 megabits per second. Shot in CinemaScope, the 2.35:1 image is letterboxed inside the 1080x24p HDTV video frame. Considering the age of this film, barring a major restoration effort, I find this a perfectly satisfactory picture.
The Sound — •••
The Internet Movie Database identifies this as having been a monaural film. The disc, encoded with a DTS Master Audio track, is stereo. Dialog and sound-effects are centered, while the score expands out across the stereo image. While there is some noise, and some oddities in the sound-effects mix — it is a relatively clean sound-track, and the dialog is mostly from the principal photography, as opposed to looped in post. Some of the ‘muttered’ dialog is harder to understand, although this is a complication because the characters are talking in French (mostly,) German, English, and possibly some Italian. And some of the sotto voce material is not captioned. Of course, it is interesting to note how the translations are handled in the captions when one has some recognition of the language being spoken. It makes me wonder how some of the English-language films are handled in foreign countries — or if I really want to know!
The film also includes dubs in German, English, and Spanish. Subtitle tracks are available in English, Spanish, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Japanese.
The disc includes several standard-definition video supplements:
• an introduction to the feature by Colin MacCabe, a producer and Godard expert, (16x9, 5½ minutes, English)
• Once Upon a Time There Was Contempt, a making-of documentary (16x9, 52½ minutes, subtitled French)
• Contempt, Tenderly, a documentary on Godard’s legacy in film, (16x9, 31½ minutes, subtitled French)
• The Dinosaur and the Baby, a discussion between Godard and Fritz Lang, (4x3, 14½ minutes, subtitled German)
• a trailer, (2.35:1, 2½ minutes, subtitled French)
• and unreviewed BD-Live content.
In The End
There is a lot of content on this disc, beyond the feature itself. And the feature is considered by some to be a piece of great artistic merit. I appreciate having had the opportunity to critically watch this film, and am glad that “people” like StudioCanal and Lionsgate are releasing content like this to the contemporary world. And while I am trying very hard to be objective and fair, I must also admit that I do not anticipate this ever showing up on any of my lists of favorite films. It is, however, a piece of the world’s film history, and in addition to documenting itself, it is a stepping-stone of this particular media-form’s evolution.