Mar 17, 2008

Classics: Contempt

For the most part, I don't quite get Jean Luc Godard. I can't say I'm a fan. I really like his first movies, where he liberated the camera, and made cinema sexy, gorgeous, free and modern (A bout de souffle, A Band Apart). But then there is a really self-conscious strain in him that I find insufferable. A whimsical, pretentious movie like Pierrot le Fou is, to me, just some Gallic spoiled brat acting out with a camera. Not my cup of tea.
I had never seen Contempt, and I knew I had to, because even if one doesn't love Godard, one needs to be acquainted with his work. One of the reasons that spurred me was that the man himself has said he likes it very little. A good recommendation, as far as I'm concerned.
Contempt has a lot going for it. For one, it has Brigitte Bardot in it. As photographed by Godard, she is not an actress, she is a creature. One thing I like of Godard is how he portrays women. Women in his films are devastatingly gorgeous. They are the essence of some kind of feminine ideal; mysterious sprites that look amazing with a sweater and a scarf and tousled hair, creatures who pout and do spontaneous things for no reason other than they are women, made to be loved by men and by the camera. Godard's gaze is adoring and totally sexy. It helps that his women are beautiful, alluring French gamines like Jean Seberg, Anna Karina (his wife and muse) and La Bardot.
They just don't make them like they used to. Consider this a tragic sentence. Bardot at the height of her beauty was a natural beauty. As natural as a peach ripening in the sun. Today, 20 year-old actresses in this sick in the head country have surgery and no sex appeal.
La Bardot in Contempt is not only insanely gorgeous. She is French. Only the French can wear their crazy manes up like that. For only the French can make disheveled, unwashed, tangled hair look just so. You could look at her hair the entire film and obsess. And then there is that pout, and those feline eyes with the best eyeliner job since Cleopatra, and surprisingly, the acting, which seems to come from a feral, honest place.
I could see how armies of men would fight over this woman. I could see how the gross caricature of the American film producer, played by Jack Palance (who looks and acts like a caricature) would want to possess this woman. She's the ultimate trophy.
And married to this extraordinary creature is the divine, gorgeous Michel Piccoli.
Here is an actor so supremely relaxed, so without artifice, that he seems to have wandered in from real life (except who in real life is so damn sexy?).
And there is also Fritz Lang, playing himself, charmingly quoting poetry in three languages.
He brings a welcome degree of unselfconsciousness to the movie.
So here's what I like about Contempt (besides Piccoli and Bardot, who make the movie well worth watching):
• it is a quietly brutal portrait of the end of a relationship, the death of love. It bummed me out deeply, which is a good thing.
• It is also a portrait of selling out. Try to please the money man and you end up selling your soul, and your wife in the balance.
• Some people think it is one of the greatest films about making films. I think it is a bitter, if rather basic take on the corruption of art by commerce, but not necessarily a great film about filmmaking. (I'm in the camp of Sunset Boulevard). I liked it more for its exploration of the death of love.
• The beautiful, haunting score by the great Georges Delerue. The music is gorgeous, but the cues are used very unorthodoxly -- in the middle of scenes, for no apparent reason. Still, it is a classic.
• Some shots are stunning. The fluidity of the camera in the apartment scene is frightening, it's so good.
Here's what irks me:
Parts of Godard seem childish to me.
• The completely over the top portrayal of the American producer. Not that Hollywood producers need defending, but this is too crude. An American barbarian in Europe, giving money to none other than Fritz Lang so he can shoot what looks like a cheesy, and needless to say, irrelevant, movie version of The Odyssey, should indeed seem like a Martian. But the character is a witless joke.
• Now, maybe I really don't get it, but the movie that poor Fritz Lang has been saddled with looks like it belongs more to the Ed Wood school of directing. Not that I want the movie within the movie to be a blockbuster production, but Greek statues with lips painted blue or yellow don't seem fit for Fritz Lang. They look like a very bad Mexican movie from the 70's.
• Some sequences are masterly, others are shoddy (horrible lighting, horrible sound). This seems to be deliberate and purely for reasons of epater le spectateur.
• Selfconscious symbolism. I know I'm supposed to love the use of the three primary colors as accents in the wardrobe and furniture. Yellow and red towels, blue sofas, etc. Yet these kinds of flourishes are distracting because they are so deliberate. They scream: "audience: you are now in symbolic territory, brush up your Freud and/or whatever cultural name dropping you have access to". It bothers me that the pretentious gets in the way of a really great story.
Is this too philistine of me?

Mar 9, 2008

Chinese Mystery Part II

So as not to give the 1.3 billion Chinese people ideas in bed, the Chinese government has banned the lovely and talented Tang Wei, the lead actress of Lust, Caution, from working in China, due to her explicit love scenes with Tony Leung. Why is she banned and not him?
Courage, Miss Tang. The bureaucrats, stupid, ignominious, clueless, may have the power, but they have nothing on you. And the people know it.