Contempt and Band of Outsiders
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

“Cinema consists of so much compromise that in the end, it has to lead to purity," said Jean-Luc Godard of the making of Contempt (1963), his first and only studio production. Coming from one of the world's most revered (and intimidating) auteurs, such a statement is at least partially ironic, but as with so many Godardian koans, the central paradox reveals a deeper truth: Godard's cinephilia knows no boundaries. Indeed, his latest feature, In Praise of Love (2001), has its protagonist standing in between two opposing movie posters, one for The Matrix and the other for Bresson's Pickpocket. If Godard's films are in fact filmed criticism, then studying them with the benefit of time and distance offers an intellectual glimpse into the pop past.

The Criterion Collection has recently released both Contempt and Band of Outsiders (1964) on DVD. Made only a year apart, these films represent Godard at aesthetic extremes: the former was a multi-million dollar international co-production featuring mega-star Brigitte Bardot and shot in Cinemascope; the latter was a black-and-white heist caper made for next to nothing and with no stars. With these DVD releases — both featuring restored prints with ample supplemental material — the Criterion Collection simultaneously demystifies and elevates the New Wave master, rendering his cine-texts as time capsules of a headier era.


The weightier of the two, both in terms of literary density and mass culture influences, Contempt has inspired a magnificent two-disc set that might seem forbidding if it weren't so beautiful. As with the film itself, the DVD is dominated equally by images of Bardot (blonde, buxom, and pouty in two extras culled from tabloid footage from the era) as well as Georges Delerue's musical score, which wafts through the DVD's menus like the ghost of a cinema long dead. Also prominent: German director Fritz Lang, who plays a version of himself in the movie, is the interview subject of a 1967 featurette entitled "The Dinosaur and the Baby." This engrossing, 10-part conversation with Godard ostensibly pits youth against age — and youth wins out. "The cinema is not just the art of our century," Lang acknowledges at one point, "it's an art for young people." But the legendary German auteur, who serves as dinosaur to Godard's precocious baby, is far from obsolete. His role in Contempt, as a renowned director constantly at war with studio forces, may not be Lang per se, but as befits a Godardian creation, the notion of Lang, i.e., a director as guerilla artist, industry iconoclast, and pagan god. It is the role that Godard himself has assumed almost forty years later.

In his DVD liner notes, Phillip Lopate calls Contempt "a film very much about a tortured kind of movie love," and indeed, all of Godard's films try in some way or another to grapple with that all-consuming passion. Like his recent In Praise of Love, Contempt chronicles the making of a movie, in this case, an adaptation of The Odyssey. Godard's screenplay is itself a gloss on Homer's epic poem, as refracted through Alberto Moravia's source novel Il Disprezzo. In this respect, Contempt not only comments on the nature of text-to-film translation, but linguistic translation as well — Italian to French for Godard's screenplay, or in the case of the film within the film, Greek to German. One of the film's main characters (Georgia Moll) is in fact an interpreter whose job is to toggle between the movie's four principle languages. What is lost in such translations? What is gained? What is permanently altered?

Bardot plays Camille, a bourgeois housewife(!), whose playwright husband Paul (Michel Piccoli) has been hired to rewrite the screenplay for Lang's epic. Contempt portrays two days in the life of this couple as their marriage lurches, stumbles, and finally collapses. It's a rapid sequence of events that feels both compressed and elongated (it takes place entirely in the couple's unfinished apartment and lasts nearly a full half hour). At the heart of the conflict is Camille's growing contempt for Paul's subservience to his producer, a crass Hollywood mogul played by Jack Palance. But just as destructive, though far less explicit, is Paul's own self-loathing that manifests itself in his distrust of his wife — a distrust that leads to avoidance and ultimately to conceding her to Palance's trophy collector. "It takes Ulysses ten years to return home because he doesn't want to," Paul tells Lang in one scene. "He was unhappy with Penelope. He used the Trojan War to get away from her."

Shot by renowned New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard on sets in Cinecittà, and in the second act, on location on the island of Capri, Contempt may be the most beautiful of Godard's films — and not surprisingly, beauty is one of its primary subjects. "The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires," Godard quotes André Bazin during the opening credits (which are read aloud, not written on the screen). If the camera covets Bardot, it does so through a cool intellectualization of her iconicity. In the opening scene, she lies naked in bed with Piccoli, asking him in sullen monotone which part of her body he likes best; in a later scene, after their marriage has broken apart, she sunbathes with a solitary book placed over her bare ass. De-eroticized, she becomes the idea of herself, a sublimation of the lusciously tangible into something wholly cerebral.

Contempt, like most of Godard's work, is more an idea of a movie than an actual movie-movie, which may explain its less than overwhelming emotional impact. From the verbalized opening credits, to the oft-repeated Delerue score (used as dramatic punctuation rather than emotional stimulant), to the climactic car crash that Godard leaves completely off-screen, providing only the bloody results, the movie is a catalogue of contrarianisms. In his invaluable audio commentary, film scholar Robert Stam says that such "miniscule innovation typifies Godard's approach, which always questioned all the conventions of cinema, even the most trivial." In the end, Godard's biggest coup was making a fictional movie that is about its own making. Released the same year as Fellini's , Contempt is among the most tragic of meta films, beginning with its own autopsy (a shot of Coutard performing a tracking shot whose results we will soon see) and ending with several translations of the word "Silence." It's a film that somehow mourns its own passing even before it is fully born.

Band of Outsiders

Just as experimental but far giddier, Band of Outsiders is a film comprised almost entirely of quotations and allusions — a delirious pageant of external references that takes as its credo a George Eliot maxim expressed early on by a minor character: "Everything that is new is thereby, automatically, traditional."

Band of Outsiders was supposed to be, in Godard's own words, a "surefire story that will sell a lot of tickets." Naturally, nothing about the movie registers as straightforward, let alone surefire, and the superficial simplicity of its heist plot only belies Godard's standard trove of in-jokes, literary references, and anarchic rule-breaking. As the film's narrator, Godard ironically summarizes the set-up in Hollywood pitch lingo: "a pile of money, a home by the river, a romantic girl." His trio of misfits (played by Sami Frey, Claude Brasseur, and Anna Karina) go about their petty mission with the half-heartedness of lycée drop-outs. They dawdle, loiter, procrastinate, and in general, resign themselves to bouncing around Godard's allusive funhouse.

The Criterion's DVD release serves a useful Cliff's Notes function in this respect. A selective scene menu takes us on a guided tour of references both high and low: Karina's Odile is a literary nod to the heroine of Raymond Queneau's 1937 novel Odile; Frey's Franz is named after Franz Kafka; and Brasseur's melancholic Arthur is an homage to French poet Arthur Rimbaud. As the bibliophilic threesome plan their heist, Godard tips his chapeau to New Wave peers Jacques Demy and François Truffaut by briefly playing the score to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and describing Odile as having Peau Douce (Soft Skin). The final scene, we learn, is a re-creation of the final shot of Chaplin's The Immigrants.

Casually brainy, Band of Outsiders is adapted from the resolutely un-intellectual pulp novel Fool's Gold by Dolores Hitchens, published in France under the popular Serie Noire label. The use of trashy source material was a favorite technique of New Wave directors, most of whom grew up watching trashy American movies. As explained by Guardian critic Richard Roud in his masterful book Godard (not included with the DVD), this cross-pollination created a mutated cultural dichotomy: "The two boys [in Band of Outsiders] seem even more typically French precisely by their fascination with imitating American gangsters. In other words, nourished by the same material as Godard himself, they became all the more French."

In a rarely-seen interview included on the DVD, Godard argues that "this movie was made as a reaction against anything that wasn't already done. An inquisition-like regime ruled French cinema. Everything was compartmentalized. There were taboos and laws and I wanted to show that it all meant nothing." This spirit is most apparent in the movie's three major set pieces: the "minute of silence" (an actual soundless interlude that lasts about 40 seconds); the impromptu Madison dance (in which the three leads strut their stuff in the middle of a restaurant, to be referenced thirty years later in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction); and the ten-minute race through the Louvre. Carefree expressions of cinematic insubordination, these sequences levitate like fat-free desserts, seemingly sinful but essentially harmless.

As Godard's muse both onscreen and off, Anna Karina possesses a child-like beauty that masks an emotional duplicity. Her inability to choose between Franz and Arthur ultimately proves lethal, though she herself remains a passive observer of her own fate. Defined principally by the men around her, Karina's Odile is a typically Godardian female who is little more than property to be exchanged, but whose capacity for deceit ultimately triumphs. (Karina was reportedly the inspiration for Contempt's Camille.) In an interview on the DVD, Karina — now old and husky-voiced, though still luminous — certainly has no regrets over submitting herself to Godard's dominant personality. Recalling the days when she and her then-husband would see every movie that played in Paris, Karina recounts how they would stay for fifteen minutes, leave, and return for the ending. "It was always that way with Jean-Luc," she explains. "We had to see everything at 100 mph."

Contempt and Band of Outsiders are now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in high-definition digital transfers made from newly restored film elements. Special features of Contempt (a two-disc set): Audio commentary by film scholar Robert Stam; two short documentaries featuring Godard on the set of Contempt ("Bardot et Godard" and "Pa"); a conversation between Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang filmed in 1967; a new video interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard; and an excerpt from an interview between Francois Chalais and Jean-Luc Godard. Special features of Band of Outsiders: a visual glossary, including film clips and stills, detailing cultural references and wordplay employed; exclusive video interviews with Raoul Coutard and actress Anna Karina; interview excerpts with Godard from 1964; and two theatrical trailers. Suggested retail price: $39.95 for Contempt and $29.95 for Band of Outsiders. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.