Redefining Sensual Aesthetics in Le Mépris

The Cannes Festival just came to an end, and we are now experiencing a strange nostalgia, wanting to revive the films that remind us of that event. This is why it seemed just right to dedicate this month’s Movie Stills to Le Mépris by Jean Luc Godard (1963). It features some of the most impressive exteriors in the cinema of the 60s, shot by Raoul Coutard. A work of art that is an ode to the arguable glamour of the film industry and the stars that are born from it. An indisputable symbol of the French New Wave.

The film is adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel Contempt, its set between Rome and the south of Italy, and it stars Michel Piccoli as writer Paul, who is basically selling his soul to work for US producer Prokosch (Jack Palance). The great Fritz Lang (playing himself), is the director Prokosh has hired to direct a movie of The Odyssey. Brigitte Bardot, on the other hand, is Paul’s wife Camille, the Penelope to Paul’s real life tragedy.

Since the announcement of the credits, because they won’t be written anywhere on the screen, you already have that feel of disruption typical of the French New Wave.

With Le Mépris, Godard intends to differentiate himself from the Hollywood films starting with the narrative that is everything but linear. The film is constantly in the exposition stage; with its long shots and the long dramatic monologues it doesn’t intend to take the drama to any resolution. But the main difference from Hollywood films, and that’s also a characteristic of Godard’s films, is the representation of sexual antagonism, and the fact that the love between two people is not what it’s going to solve the problem (as it did in classical Hollywood films). Brigitte Bardot is shown as a full sexual bomb, and despite the fact that she seems not to be in power of the apparent situation, she actually is thanks to her femininity.

Besides the portrayal of female sexuality, what is absolutely mind-blowing in the film is the photography. It was a revolution for that time to do such stunning exterior shots, not shot in interior, and to use the Cinemascope ratio to highlight them. What is more remarkable was using that ratio in your advantage to shoot interior scenes. But Raoul Coutard and Godard seemed to master it all. The production design all along the film looks like a painting by Piet Mondrian, very minimalistic, highlighting only primary colors like red, yellow, blue and white. A pure visual feast!

Le Mépris is definitely the work of art that redefines the ways in which subjectivity, sexuality, relationality and aesthetics can be understood and transformed.

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