It’s always interesting when a film director is cast in a film. It is a very intentional element to the film, not only reminding the audience of that director’s role in film history, but also the personal connection one director can have with the life and work of another. Many directors have appeared in films: Francois Truffaut, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog all appear in the films of younger directors obviously influenced by their work. And it is unsurprising that a director like Goddard would have been influenced by Fritz Lang and wanted him not only to appear in his film, but play himself. Lang’s pessimist view of the world, hard views shown in his crime and noir films, have played a role in the type of films Jean-Luc Goddard made during the French New Wave.
Contempt, which cast Lang as himself, is one of the ultimate meta films about filmmaking, and certainly one of Goddard’s most personal films regarding his opinions of the film industry (as well as women). And while it may not be the definitive Goddard work, or even the most recognizable, it does serve as the ultimate work of the auteur. His often challenging view of women, disgust and frustration with the industry of film he has such passionate for, his view of art vs commerce – they are all on full display in the story of a screenwriter hired to “punch-up” a screenplay for a new Fritz Lang version of The Odyssey.
But that also makes Contempt one of the hardest films to recommend. If unfamiliar with the work of Goddard, or even the director, this film is not an advisable entry point. In fact, the movie is so “meta” and has so many references, it seems unlikely that non-film students would find much in the film satisfying. The movie is gorgeous but often plodding, and while Brigitte Bardot is sensual and fascinating to watch on screen, she also is restricted to playing a certain type of woman, seen through the eyes of Goddard. Even Lang, while he has wonderful scenes speaking with the young writer (and gives an easy and even at times funny performance), is only given a cameo to play with.
It makes so it’s ultimately impossible to recommend Contempt, as there are certain requirements one must meet to truly enjoy the movie. One not only must one be familiar with the work of Goddard, but also a fan of his more accessible work (Breathless, Masculine Femine, Band of Outsiders). Contempt can’t be an entry point to his work, or even a casual viewing experience. But it can be a capstone viewing for an audiences familiar with the films of Jean-Luc Goddard to dig a little deeper. And just as Goddard was influenced by Lang, fans of Langs would get a great deal from movie from the master of German cinema to one of the people who made Auteur a common term in film. See the connections between the two men, but do your homework first to get the most out of the cinematic experience.
It is highly recommended that you watch the Criterion Collection version of this film as features the French version with actors speaking their own language, rather than the poorly dubbed American Version. The Criterion Edition is out of print, buy you can find a used copy on Amazon.
Watch the Contempt Trailer