You probably already knew (or assumed) that, but I have recent proof, as I saw the 28 year old Bardot yesterday afternoon in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”, an odd but cinematographic beautiful film. It was shown at the National Gallery of Art, as part of their regular Saturday and Sunday free film series.
Based (loosely, I have to assume) on a novel by Alberto Moravia, the plot (not that the plot is the center of film, necessarily) is that a struggling playwright (Michel Piccoli) agrees to help American producer (Jack Palance) rewrite the script for his film (being directed by Fritz Lang), the film being based (again I assume loosely) on Homer’s “Odyssey”. Piccoli is married to Brigitte Bardot, and we see their marriage disintegrate as this film project proceeds.
The setting is Italy, with scenes in Rome and on Capri. The film was released in 1964 and filmed in Technicolor, with an emphasis on deep and contrasting coloration. It was also filmed in Cinemascope, and it takes full advantage of the wide screen. Seeing this on a television screen would be a very different experience.
Putting aside the cinematography, the film is perhaps best described as “odd”. To flesh it out a bit, Palance is a wealthy American, always dressed in a three piece suit, who wants his movie to be a money maker. Lang, playing himself in the movie, is an elderly, European art film director, who has a very different concept and who is at odds with his money source. Piccoli has never written for film before, and does not know if he wants to write for the cinema, but needs the money. At the start of the film, it appears that he and his young wife are very much in love, but their relationship is shown to be more fragile than it appears.
At the first meeting with Palance (who by the way should have been ashamed of his poor acting in this film) at his studio, Palance suggests that they repair to his villa for lunch. As he drives a two seat Alfa Romeo, he offers Bardot a ride, leaving the others to come by taxi or by bicycle. Bardot offers to take a taxi with her husband, but Piccoli tells her to go with Palance, and that he will meet them at the villa, raising a question in Bardot’s mind as to his motives. Piccoli compounded the problem by not showing up for over a half hour and assuming, so it appeared, that something might have happened between Palance and Bardot, but not seeming to care.
Whether Piccoli was actually pimping for his wife is never made completely clear, but Bardot (not the most self-assured young woman) is highly suspicious, and this leads to about 30 minutes of back and forth in their apartment, where their relationship veers from devotion to distaste (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” without the alcohol). One of the issues at hand is whether Bardot will accompany Palance, Piccoli and Lang to a filming session on Capri.
Bardot keeps suggesting that she would rather not go, and Piccoli is insistent that she should. Why is this? Because Piccoli does not want to be without his wife, or does not want his wife to be alone in Rome while they are gone, or because he believes that Bardot will really love Capri? Or could it be because Piccoli thinks that his own interests will be served if Palance and Bardot find themselves both living in a romantic house on the Mediterranean, both with time on their hands as the rest of them are working? Again, unclear.
Let it be said that things don’t work out well. At the end of the film, Palance and Bardot are dead, and Piccoli leaves Capri to return to Rome and rebuild his life. Only Lang insists that he will finish the filming of the “Odyssey”.
But it’s a quirky film, and the plot line does not move smoothly from point A to point B, and it is at times frustrating and confusing. But there is Capri and there is Bardot (there are scenes of her nude body, but only from the rear – that is enough). And there are some unique features. For one, the credits are spoken, not just written. For another, the main characters speak different languages. Palance, only English. Bardot and Piccoli, only French (maybe a little Italian). Lang and Palance’s attractive assistant/translator (Giorgia Moll) speak both, as well as German and Italian. Moll flits around translating everything that is said by, and to, Palance. (Bardot believes, right or wrong, that Piccoli finds Moll attractive, and has made advances to her.) English subtitles are there to help where needed…..most of the time.
Most critics seem to like this film. It is rated highly both on ImdB and Rotten Tomatoes. But I agree with the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther’s 1964 review: “For a director who manipulates cinema as adroitly as does Jean-Luc Godard, and has as much feeling for the image and as much sense of pictorial style as he has, it would seem he could put his talents to more intelligent and illuminating use than he has been doing in his recent pictures – especially Contempt, which opened yesterday at the Lincoln Arts.”
But for the visuals, it is worth taking a look.