Growing up with Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Contempt’

One day the summer before my sophomore year of high school, my father asked me to help him carry an old dresser out to his truck. The dresser was covered in scratches and the varnish had worn down. It was at least as old as I was, maybe as old as my parents’ marriage. The wood was of low quality, not particularly dense, so lifting the dresser into the truck bed wasn’t difficult. We had moved to a new house a few years earlier and replaced many of our possessions, so I assumed it was time to dispose of the dresser; it had already served its purpose.

Later that afternoon, my mother called me down to the kitchen where she and my father were waiting. He told me that he would be moving out for a while. My mother just looked on, unwilling or unable to make eye contact with me. In turn, I was barely able to look at my father; I would glance toward his face occasionally, then stare back down at his shoes and wait until I would need to look again. My father said other things too, about how his departure might be temporary, about how this had nothing to do with me or my sisters, but it all failed to register. I tried to keep my mind blank and banished any thoughts while he spoke. Heat rose on my face and I worried that the blushing would betray the stoicism I desperately wanted to affect.

My father finished his speech and I muttered some kind of goodbye. There might have been a place for a hug before he departed, but I couldn’t bring myself to give him one. Looking at him was difficult enough. I turned around and headed for the stairs up to my bedroom. Normally I would scurry up them, running on all fours like a little monkey, but I made sure to walk slowly this time. The occasion seemed to warrant that I act like an adult, at least until I was alone. I went up to my room and hid for the rest of the day.

My parents told my sisters after me, and I could hear my mother and them crying the rest of the evening. After my father had left, I opened my bedroom door and saw the older of my two sisters in the upstairs hallway. Her cheeks shone with tears and she let out moist, hiccupping sobs. She looked straight at me and just stood there, as if imploring me to do something. I had picked the wrong moment to leave my hiding spot. My mother and my other sister joined her and all three of them stood in the hallway, my sisters on either side of my mother, hugging her. I let out an exasperated sigh from my doorway, as if to punish them for being so attached to my father, then closed the door again.

I first saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt a few weeks after my father had walked out of our house. I had read about Godard and was fascinated by what I imagined his films were like. It seemed most of them were guerilla exercises, shot in shaky black and white, as if the streets of Paris were a war zone. I had not seen any of those films, but I knew that Contempt was supposed to be unlike the others, in widescreen and opulent color. Plus it starred Brigitte Bardot, about whom I knew nothing other than that she might be nude.

Contempt Capri

Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot as Paul and Camille in Contempt (StudioCanal)

Filmed at Cinecittà studios in Rome and on the island of Capri, Contempt captured a sun that was nourishing rather than harsh, a sun that had birthed ancient civilizations. The sea surrounding Capri was almost artificial, too perfectly blue to exist in reality. The film’s colors and visuals were intoxicating, and Georges Delerue’s score conveyed a sense of love and ecstasy that I had never before experienced from film music. His Camille theme, with its ethereal violins, was full of romance, until the lower strings intruded and added a tinge of sadness. The theme bored its way into my brain and has never left. Godard would use that music in ways that were foreign to me. Sometimes it would appear in tender scenes shared between a couple; other times, the music would start and stop, almost at random, occasionally over mundane actions. The visuals and music were overpowering, but movies are about people, and it was those people who most fascinated me.

Contempt is centered on Paul (Michel Piccoli), a writer of mystery paperbacks and occasional screenplays, who has been commissioned to write a new screenplay for an adaptation of The Odyssey, to be directed by Fritz Lang (playing a version of himself). Lang’s original screenplay is too elliptical for his churlish American producer, Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance). Paul brings along his wife, Camille (Bardot), who suspects that Paul is offering her to Prokosch. She also worries about Paul putting his real ambitions on hold to work as a hired gun. A schism builds between the two.


Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot in Contempt (StudioCanal)

The film’s most important scene takes place in Paul and Camille’s apartment. Camille is angry with Paul for agreeing to write the screenplay, but also for flirting with the film producer’s assistant. Paul can’t seem to stay out of Camille’s way, and instead interrogates her to see if the producer made a move on her when she was alone with him. Paul’s questions, innocent at first, devolve into an indictment, and the couple’s searing resentments begin to fill up the flat, suffocating them and the viewer. The camera acts as a stand-in for the audience; when Paul and Camille sit at opposite ends of the living room, the camera tracks to either side, settling on whoever is dominant at that moment. As their fight becomes too painful to watch, the camera ducks behind a lamp, obscuring the contempt on their faces. By the end of the scene, their marriage is essentially over.

Contempt is considered one of the great films about film, but I have never viewed it that way. For me, it was all about the death of love.

As I watched Paul and Camille grow further apart, I thought of my parents’ separation a few weeks earlier. I felt a fear and a sadness, not so much because of my parents, whom I didn’t care to think much about, but at the idea that love could be so fragile, so fleeting. Would that happen to me someday? Would I wake up next to someone I loved in the morning, only to find a stranger that evening?

My parents had always had arguments and strain, but their separation took me by surprise. It shouldn’t have; the arguments that drove me to seek solitude should have clued me in that all was not well. But sometimes it’s hard to see what is right in plain sight.


Brigitte Bardot in Contempt (StudioCanal)

When I see Contempt now, at twenty-eight, I wonder if the end of Paul and Camille’s love wasn’t as swift as it first appeared. My parents’ separation was only a surprise to me because I wasn’t privy to all their secret conversations behind closed doors. Godard’s own marriage was ending as he made his film, and Paul and Camille are stand-ins for his own relationship. During their pivotal argument in the apartment, Camille covers her tousled and alluring blonde hair with a black bob wig for reasons that I didn’t understand at the time. Years later, I would discover the meaning of the wig after seeking out another Godard film, Vivre sa vie. Godard had cast his own wife in that film and put her in a bob wig to make her resemble Louise Brooks, a silent film actress. In Contempt, Godard was turning Camille into his own wife by putting the same kind of wig on her. People rarely disappear into character in a Godard film—he constantly reminds the audience that it’s watching a movie, not reality. But in this instance, Camille’s contempt was real.

Now I communicate with my father occasionally, sparingly, mostly to maintain the lines of communication and ask for money to supplement my mother’s meager income and cover my grad school expenses. The first time I received a check from him I looked to see what address was listed on it. Would it still be my family’s house? Or would he have replaced it with a house of his own? The address was new, and the street unfamiliar—Tuscany Way. Tuscany is hundreds of miles from Capri, but not really that far. Only a fraction of the distance that now separates me from him. Sometimes I think about that house on Tuscany Way and wonder what it looks like. Who lives there now? Just my father? Or is someone with him? I wonder if he still has the dresser.

Whenever I am reminded of Contempt, a montage of scenes from the film runs through my mind. I see Paul and Camille, desperately in love, then complete strangers. I see my father, walking out of one life, and into another. I have watched Contempt many times, maybe more than any other movie, which seems strange, considering that it causes me pain every time.

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