December 29, 2008

Le Mepris or Marxist Methods for living in a Capitalist World

She discovers she no longer loves Ulysses because of his weakness.

I don't think its safe to review a film on a first viewing- or at least to review a film like this on a first viewing. But Le Mepris or Contempt struck me with such force that I thought I must leave some testament- some record to what it inspired in me at first viewing. It was not merely the beauty of the young Bardot, nor the impassive resistance and majesty of Fritz Lang but something more important than that. Its the breakdown of the relationship at the centre of the film that affected me: that relationship breaks down in a wonderful sequence that lasts over half an hour, which is reminiscent in its triviality and its profundity, of every meaningless argument that ever destroyed a relationship and devastated lives. What Goddard makes is an argument both about the nature of film- of which more later- but also about the nature of life and love. In this sense the view of the film that sees it as a letter from Goddard to his estranged wife Anna Karina makes more and more sense- for what would such a letter be composed of but thoughts about love and about film. And as such there is something private about Le Mepris, something that will never be decoded, something that we will strive to find in this or any review and fail to.

So what is Le Mepris about. An imperious American producer, Prokosch, has hired Lang- the great director- and wants to hire a young screenwriter to rewrite Lang's over intellectual script. Lang has aspirations to make a film about Homer's Odyssey, Prokosch wants more naked mermaids unerotically but nakedly cavorting in the sea (after one such sequence the Producer giggles and squirms in his chair). The writer, Paul, is married to a beautiful ex-typist- Bardot's character, Camille- whom Prokosch takes an immediate shine to. Prokosch invites the two of them back to his mansion: he then invites Camille to take his car with him, he then propositions her on the way to his house and when Paul finally turns up, having lost the way, an hour later Camille frigidly turns from him. The rest of the film surrounds his inability to see what she has been through- and her inability to communicate that to him- this precipitates the final calamity in their marriage. Surrounding it though is the bleak story of the film- in which Prokosch's bizarre speculations about what the Homeric story really means, and his pocket book quotation philosophy, triumphs over Lang's subtlety because he has the wallet. Paul resists the fall. For Lang it is merely a reminder that to live is to suffer.

The language in which this story is expressed is interesting- it is all about ownership. Camille's arguments with Paul are about the fact that she cannot be owned- she can be loved, adored even and can love and adore but she cannot be owned. Her decisions cannot be taken for her. On another plane the same issue appears with the film, Homer's story cannot be owned by an American media mogul no matter how rich. Even the Gods in Odysseus fail to manipulate the wanderer strictly to the paths they have chosen- and what Goddard leaves us in no doubt with is the perception that all claims of ownership ultimately do not provide the kinds of release that they offer. Prokosch may think he is a modern Zeus, actually he is a comic Malvolio with a magnum of champagne. But we can go further and deeper into this: the next thing that Goddard demonstrates is that people do not wish to be or like to be owned. Camille is the vehicle for this perception- as soon as she perceives that her husband is using her as a commodity, her fury becomes an emblem within the film. Furthermore one knows that even if she were to use Prokosch, she would despise him.

If the impossibility of owning another human being is one side of Goddard's coin, then the other side is how to live in a society where demands are constantly made upon one to give up oneself. Three approaches manifest themselves here within the confines of the film- and they surround the three main male characters. Prokosch's approach is to seize control of the universe- but as Goddard shows when you try and do that, the universe has a habit of rebounding on you, causing tragedy not merely to the slave but to the master. The second approach is Paul's and that is a wilful blindness to what is happening to you- an acceptance of the ownership imposed by society because you are too stupid to recognise that your producer covets your pretty wife and too foolish to see how your integrity is being compromised. The third approach is that of Lang: to search for something else- in this case art- and use the society you live in to that end. Not to compromise unless you are forced, and when you are forced give in with a weary nod to that old truth- that in living there is suffering. Lang's position is not merely a directorial nod to the kind of films that Goddard saw as dying, but also within the film it is a nod to the kind of life that wanted people to inhabit: when it comes to the world resigned cynicism, when it comes to art interest and enthusiasm.

Ultimately what Goddard's film is about, is what Lang says that the Odyssey is about, the theme of fate and how to live one's life in a world governed by other forces. For Lang, the hero of the Odyssey represents the human desire to achieve an objective- whether it be art or Ithaca in a world governed by tyrants- Goddard's point in a sense is that Lang represents in this case, an Odysseyan view of life. Whereas Paul would have abandoned the quest to return to Ithaca on Circe's island, and Prokosch sought to become a God himself, Lang keeps on, monocle in place, making the film that he wants to make because he seeks not to enslave, but to produce something of worth. In that sense the artist, the Greek hero and the proletarian worker have become one- in that sense only can we escape, in Goddard's view, from contempt.


James Hamilton said...

"Camille's arguments with Paul are about the fact that she cannot be owned- she can be loved, adored even and can love and adore but she cannot be owned." I imagine that this implies she can't be pwned, either.

Do you really not review a film that you've "only" seen once? Given your prolific cinema-blogging, that thought leaves me gasping for air.

Gracchi said...

I have to keep up with some pretty intelligent commentators James! I don't watch everything twice but some films require a bit of a savour before you can work out precisely their taste- weird metaphor but I hope it conveys my meaning.