Le Mépris (1963)

aka Contempt

2015 #190
Jean-Luc Godard | 103 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | France & Italy / French, English, German & Italian* | 15

Le Mépris establishes its two main themes with its two opening shots. First, a static shot of the film’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, filming a scene from the film, over which writer-director Jean-Luc Godard reads out the credits, which never appear on screen. This is a movie about moviemaking, and its inherent artifice. Second, a shot of Brigitte Bardot’s naked bottom. This is a movie about a man being in love with Bardot (well, the character she plays), and another man lusting after her, and what happens when the first man pats a different bottom. Maybe.

The first man is Michel Piccoli, playing a playwright turned screenwriter who is only in it for the money, to buy a flat to share with Bardot to keep her happy. But she doesn’t want it. Or she does. Or maybe she doesn’t. The second man is Jack Palance, playing an American studio executive who’s paying the writer, but who seems to covet Bardot. It’s his assistant/translator whose bottom gets patted, in a relatively innocent matter. As innocently as an attractive Frenchman in Italy in the ’60s ever pats a woman’s bottom, anyway. The film is being directed by Fritz Lang, playing Fritz Lang, who comes out with some words of wisdom but mainly is present to represent the art of cinema. The playwright doesn’t see it as art, because it’s not a play. The producer doesn’t want it to be art, because he wants to make money.

All of this plays out over a day or two in some very long scenes. Indeed, the centrepiece is a 34-minute quiet, passive-aggressive argument between the playwright and Bardot in the aforementioned flat. They go round in circles about staying together or being apart. The point? Your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps it’s the unknowableness of the other gender (whichever gender you are). Perhaps it’s just the unknowableness of other people fullstop. Perhaps it’s the unknowableness of our own emotions — eventually Bardot decides she does want to leave the playwright to run off with the producer, but no one seems to know why.

Apparently it’s somewhat autobiographical. Maybe that explains everything.

There are attractive performances from all concerned, and gorgeous saturated cinematography by Coutard. The location manager has also done superlative work, from the run-down mostly-deserted Cinecittà studio the film opens in, to the stunning and unusual holiday home in Capri where it comes to a head. Even if you’re left a little baffled by the exact point of what you’re watching, at least it’s pretty to look at.

4 out of 5

Le Mépris was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

* All 4 languages are prominently spoken at times, but it’s mainly French, with a big dose of English from Jack Palance. On the Criterion DVD, the German and Italian parts aren’t even unsubtitled. ^

The Big Heat (1953)

2011 #8
Fritz Lang | 86 mins | TV | 15

The Big HeatFritz Lang is probably best remembered for the films he made in Germany; medium-defining classics like Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Metropolis, Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse and M — I’d certainly heard of him in the context of those films long before I realised he’d emigrated to America and produced several noirs — but now, I’m increasingly discovering his American output is nothing to be sniffed at.

The Big Heat is, I believe, considered one of the best. It’s also still rated 15, which feels unusual for an American film of this era (I have no statistical information if it is or not, but remember US films were still under the Production Code at this point), and though the BBFC provide no more details, once you’ve seen it you can see why.

It’s rather grim and very violent, to be blunt. Even if most of the violence is off screen, it’s still described in fair detail — and most of it’s against women too. Indeed, I think the only on-screen deaths are female. Lang adds intensity to this mix, a quiet sort of tension (though I feel there may’ve been room for even more of this). It becomes clear that this is a tale where anything could — and does — happen; where it is, for once, genuinely true that no one is safe. The plot’s fairly straightforward — no big reveals here — This photo is all kinds of winbut it does manage what might be described as twists in how far it’s willing to go — mainly, who gets killed and how.

The cast are excellent. Glenn Ford is a suitably square-jawed lead; Alexander Scourby a detestable gentleman-villain; Lee Marvin a truly brutal thug. The best part goes to Gloria Grahame however, in a role that moves from a ditzy minor broad to so much more. In the performance stakes, it’s certainly her film.

I think I have more affection for Ministry of Fear (it’s barmy, especially all that palaver with the cake), but as a straight, hard-edged noir, The Big Heat looks tough to beat.

4 out of 5

The Big Heat merited an honourable mention on my list of The Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

Ministry of Fear (1944)

2010 #70
Fritz Lang | 83 mins | TV | PG

Ministry of FearI like cake. It’s all soft and sweet and tasty. But I don’t like cake as much as Stephen Neale, the protagonist of Ministry of Fear.

Neale (played by Ray Milland) likes cake so much that, as soon as he’s released from an asylum at the film’s start, he goes almost directly to a nearby fête to win a cake. And win it he does… though as he leaves with his prize, he’s told he didn’t win it after all. But Neale loves cake so much that he pays them off so he can keep it. Then he gets on a train to London — and he loves cake so much, he can’t resist tucking in straight away. At least he’s kind enough to give a piece to the blind man who shares the car with him. Except the blind man whacks Neale over the head, steals the cake and jumps off the (fortunately, stationary) train with it. Not because he loves cake too, but we’ll come to that.

But the blind man — who isn’t actually blind, as you may have guessed — hasn’t counted on just how much Neale loves cake. He jumps off the train too, giving chase. The not-blind blind man shoots at him, but that’s not enough to deter Neale from cake. It’s only when a Nazi bomb drops on the cake, destroying it (and the not-blind blind man) that Neale finally gives up. And even then he goes back to look for the cake later in the film.

I think he's about to cut the cake...Ministry of Fear isn’t really about cake, but the opening 20 minutes or so plays out more or less as above and it is rather amusing. Less amusing — and, in fact, part of the film’s biggest problem — is a ‘humorous’ epilogue that returns to the cake theme. I found it hilariously funny, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. The other part of the problem is the abrupt ending that immediately precedes this brief coda. On the bright side, everything is resolved and you can imagine the post-climax resolution scene for yourself, but it still leaves the tale’s telling cut short.

To say too much about what Ministry of Fear is actually about would ruin it, which I don’t want to do because in fact it’s a great twisty little thriller, a rather Hitchcockian ‘wrong man’ tale with a baked MacGuffin. You might need a decent suspension of disbelief to get through it, as Neale races round London trying to find out the truth behind the activities of a wartime charity and its army of little old dears, but doing so rewards with a tale where you can never be sure who is on whose side and where any character will end up.

Director Fritz Lang brings his customary expertise to proceedings, with several shots and sequences worthy of appreciation in their own right. Nazi drone, perhapsThe train cake theft and chase, for instance, could be thoroughly laughable thanks to the cake element and what’s clearly a studio-built wood/wasteland, but it’s atmospherically shot and, in its main burst of genius, scored only by the drone of a Nazi air raid taking place overhead. It makes for a more tense and effective soundtrack than most musical scores manage.

In spite of the potentially laughable opening and the need to suspend one’s disbelief — or, perhaps, because of it — Ministry of Fear is a most enjoyable wartime film noir in a Hitchockian mould.

4 out of 5