Moving Pictures
Jun 18, 2024, 06:29AM

Godard's Last "Real" Movie

Contempt is both a coda for an industry that doesn’t exist anymore, and a prelude to the strange frontier we’re still navigating to this day.

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One of the great sequences in cinema is one that’s been written about to death: Martha opening the door, revealing the vast expanse of the West and a lone rider approaching the house at the start of The Searchers (1956). Even in John Ford’s vast and stunning filmography there might not be a more stunning image. Its key is its continuous and surprising motion—the black frame is opened up by a door, then the world expands to a widescreen frame as the camera steps out the precipice with Martha, and the walls give way to sandy expanse. One thing that’s not often noted is how the camera precedes Martha’s movement, inching forward on its dolly before Martha takes a step, as if it’s giving her a push.

As film viewers, I think we’re more implicitly influenced by movement than we’re at first able to articulate. It goes back to the magic trick at the dawn of cinema, the fascination with the moving image, its hypnotic quality. This is all just with the fixed frame, too—the one audiences are familiar with, like in theater, painting, or photography. When the camera itself moves, it introduces a new spatial quality unprecedented in art, it can be as shocking as it is beautiful. It’s momentous. The moving camera has often been linked to industrial modernity; the first dollies were train tracks (which themselves earned a new historic weight after WWII). This type of camera movement is an artistic power to convey that was new to the world, a seismic tool that would be wielded by one person alone: the director.

At least, this is how it works in the traditional view of cinema—a form that reached its zenith mid-century, an industry that’s since declined and become more diffuse. Cinema was once an industrial product, made in factories. Like everything else in the last 50 years—like the dollar taken off the gold standard and replaced with speculative capital, like the American economy moving from hard commodities to professionalism and services, like the venturous value of the internet taking over the media institutions that once governed thoughts and opinions—cinema has become diffuse. It’s been rendered as a world of executive producers and shareholders beholden to algorithms and artificial intelligence, and the land of “art film” has become as niche as the medium itself has been (intentionally and not) culturally irrelevant.

There’s an easy split in the history of cinema: there are films before Breathless (1960) and films after Breathless. Like The Searchers, there’s little new to say about Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature. What I will say is, as stark of a break as Breathless was for cinema, the films of Godard’s legendary 1960s run have much more in common with the films that came before than what he would start producing after Weekend (1967) (and in my opinion, I think his voice didn’t really start to come into its own, ironically, until his work on the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Pierre Gorin and his later meeting longtime partner and collaborator Anne-Marie Miéville).

Nowhere is Godard’s own kinship to the filmmaking machine as his last attempt at a “real” movie, his biggest movie, full of stars and Cinemascope and Technicolor, before he fell back on his more playful little romps. Contempt (1963) is a strange masterpiece in that its mature for Godard’s initial ‘60s run, displaying a staggering confidence behind camera and in the editing room that’s often betrayed by an analytic insecurity—the very kind that looked at the footage for Breathless, realized it was a shit crime film, and cut it to bits to make a new kind of arthouse. Contempt breathes like few Godard films before or after, as it has the heartbeat of a Hollywood melodrama pulsing its veins.

Contempt, too, features another of the great sequences in cinema, when the central cast leaves a screening of rushes from the Fritz Lang adaptation of The Odyssey that they’re working on at Cinecittà. Lang exits the building after his assistant, the camera pans to the right with her before she runs out of frame. Lang starts to light a cigarette and Raoul Coutard’s camera feints a pan back to the left before revealing itself to be on a dolly, guided back by Lang’s steps forward. From here we cut to the eyes of the director: a push-in on the writer (Michel Picolli) and his wife (Brigitte Bardot), as their marriage is literally and metaphorically split as the American producer (Jack Palance) drives his cherry-red sports car in between them. The dolly, pushed by the director’s gaze, bestows the narrative of the mise-en-scene with an overwhelming sense of destiny.

The hand of the director is a guiding force, less like a pen and more like a materialization of meaning out of the industrious processes that create cinema. Two things I stumbled across on Twitter in the last couple of weeks were revelatory for me in this. First, was a post highlighting a John Ford interview with Cahiers du Cinéma back in 1955, wherein he said: “It is wrong to liken a director to an author. He is more like an architect.” I think Godard would agree with this sentiment, especially given his emphasis later in his career on wanting to be called a producer of his films even more so than a director, equating the act of film production with that of more traditional industrial output. Second, I saw an article posted about the now-obscure Mac-Mahonian sect within the Cahiers, and one of its leader’s Michel Mourlet. The Mac-Mahonians were in search of the obscure, the underrated, the undiscovered (as cuttingly ribbed as they are in Luc Moullet’s Les sièges de l’Alcazar [1989]), as opposed to the “Young Turks” that would make up the bulk of the French New Wave (Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, their ilk) who had an obsession with seriously examining popular American cinema.

Vinzenz Hediger’s article on Mourlet opens revealing one of my favorite pieces of information: the André Bazin quote played in the premiere sequence of Contempt, “Cinema replaces what we see with a world reconciled with our desires” is a quote from Mourlet. Here Godard vindicates Mourlet: he bends the world of cinema away from its reality, undercutting the author and replacing Mourlet with Godard’s own mythos of post-Bazinian cinema, while also revealing the influence of the Mac-Mahonians as more than Godard’s willing to state.

The cinema that the “Young Turks” and the Mac-Mahonians at the Cahiers alike were searching for all existed within the industry paradigm of film, one which first ripped apart with the filming of Breathless and shattered when Easy Rider (1969) effectively put the Hollywood studio system out of business. In this sense, that dolly shot in Contempt also foretold the death of that very kind of cinema, the break apart of the studio cinema that governed the first half century of the medium as much as it did the marital dissolution of the two leads. It’s the kind of shot that wouldn’t carry the same weight if it was done now, and part of its staggering beauty is that it is from 1963, in the rebuilt ruins of post-war Cinecittà, guided by the great European director in front of the camera as much as behind. This is what I mean when I say that Godard’s early works have more to do with the films that came before than the ones that came after, his movements are classical, their affect is Fordian. Contempt acts as a coda for type of industry that doesn’t exist anymore, and a prelude to a new and strange frontier in the history of the art, one we’re still navigating to this day.


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