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 Knife (1955)

2015 #8
Robert Aldrich | 107 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

The Big KnifeJack Palance is an actor wanting out of his studio contract in this stagey film noir.

The entire film takes place in his house, with a parade of supporting characters coming and going to variously persuade him to stay, persuade him to quit, or persuade him to do other things (saucy!) It’s not just the limited location that makes it feel stagey, though, but also the style of dialogue and the performances. I’m never quite able to put my finger on it, but there’s a certain way playwrights seem to pen dialogue that just feels like it’s from theatre, and The Big Knife (which is adapted from a stage play) has it.

Palance is very good, playing against expectations as an actor who sold out his artistry and is now struggling to be brave enough to stand up to the overbearing studio execs, who have an additional hold over him. Rod Steiger is a bit OTT as the studio’s head, Stanley Hoff, but then the character’s meant to be a bit like that. Somewhat heavy-handed pillorying of a real studio boss? Perhaps. Also worth watching is Rear Window’s Wendell Corey as Hoff’s assistant, Smiley Coy. His is a more subtle performance, conveying his opinions and enacting his schemes mostly with looks. I suppose you don’t get much less stagey than that.

ShoutyPartially driven by a seeming twist that’s obvious from the outset (which, in fairness, the film reveals only 40 minutes in), the story never quite comes alive. Palance and Corey make parts worth watching, but at other times it’s a bit of a slog, not helped by an awful score that chimes in now and then, loudly. Expansive cinematography (so much headroom — was it shot to be cropped for widescreen? Perhaps it was) combats any feeling of claustrophobia the single location and oppressive moral situation might have leant it.

The Big Knife is not the finest film noir (certainly, if anyone’s looking for familiar genre tropes, you’ll find few here), nor the finest behind-the-sets view of moviemaking, but some sporadically strong performances prevent it being meritless for the patient viewer.

3 out of 5

Young Guns (1988)

2011 #37
Christopher Cain | 102 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Young GunsWay back in March, the ever-excellent Colin at Ride the High Country covered a series of films about Billy the Kid, including this late-’80s effort. To quote from the comments section: “I would have been in that target demographic too when I first saw it… around 20 years old or so… I wonder how it would play now to an audience of a similar age.” Well, as someone who watched it when closer to 20 than 30, I shall step up to the task.

Considering this is ‘the Brat Pack Western’, one might well expect a modernised, sanitised West; something like Wild Wild West or Jonah Hex; something rated PG-13. Instead the film seems to have begun life as a serious attempt at a Billy the Kid biography, right down to bloody violence that earns it an R in the US and even an 18 over here. This intention seems to survive — bar a music-video-styled opening, a couple of lines of dialogue, and the wailing ’80s guitar score — but how successful it was is another matter.

I don’t know about historical accuracy in this case, not knowing much more about Billy the Kid than I’ve gleaned from… well, this film, and Colin’s series. Playing loose with facts can work in a film’s favour — as many a filmmaker has noted in the past, they’re making entertainment not documentary — but it can be galling to one who knows the truth. In the way it presents events, this one feels accurate — things like characters appearing only to die immediately; the kind of thing that doesn’t sit well narratively but might be the truth. If it isn’t accurate, this is all the more dangerous: there’s a difference between changing facts so something works as a film narrative and presenting the wrong thing as the truth. Guns of the youngThough if someone was planning to use Young Guns to research the real-life facts of these events, more fool them in the first place. Wikipedia says (without citation) that “historian Dr. Paul Hutton has called Young Guns the most historically accurate of all prior Billy the Kid films”. We’ll leave it at that for now.

As a film in itself, then, the narrative is a bit scrappy. Our heroes wander around killing some people, racing about the country sometimes for no discernible reason and with chunks apparently missing. For instance, they head to Mexico just for the challenge of it — we’re told it’s a hard road, laden with bounty hunters out to get them — but the film cuts from their decision to make this journey to their arrival with a rapturous welcome. Eh? I have no idea if this stuff was shot and cut for time, or if someone needed to have a long hard look at the screenplay. Or even a quick glance.

The finale is also implausible. One assumes the characters who survive must have survived in reality and the others must’ve died, but the way it’s played here it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. How did they defeat those overwhelming odds? How did they pull off that escape? It might pass muster with The Hero Is Invulnerable movie logic, but not as a claim to depicting real-life events. Billy the GrinAnd that’s without mentioning the overuse of dated slow-motion that descends upon its eventual climax.

As for the Brat Pack themselves, Emilio Estevez’s version of Billy the Kid seems to descend during the film from above-himself hot-head out for revenge to giggling loon. This isn’t really character development, more as if halfway through Estevez realised how much fun it was to laugh and so kept doing it. Charlie Sheen gets the honour of (spoilers!) being killed off halfway through. As one of the most recognisable members of the ‘Brat Pack’, here playing the leader of the gang, it works as an effective surprise.

Kiefer Sutherland has the best part though. He’s given the only subplot that approaches anything meaningful and also almost all the best lines (not that there are many). The remainder go to Jack Palance, who isn’t around enough to create a great villain but makes a commendably good hash of it in his brief time. Equally brief is Terence Stamp’s part. I have to say I’m no fan of Stamp — everywhere I’ve seen him he seems awkwardly flat, often phoning it in — but here he’s not bad. This may be because his role’s quite small and relatively subdued as it is. Patrick Wayne appears as Pat Garrett for a knowing cameo; the kind of small role which any viewer can tell Means Something, but if you don’t know what he means there’s no explanation proffered (until the final scene, anyway, when Sutherland narrates a “what happened next” for the surviving characters).

This film does not occur in real timeYoung Guns is not a particularly likeable film, managing to miss both its potential target audiences: it’s not serious-minded enough for Western enthusiasts, let down by the Brat Pack cast and (it seems) historical accuracy; but it’s surely not fun or modernised enough to appeal to a younger (or younger-minded) crowd. Though clearly it did well enough as it spawned a sequel two years later. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t particularly like it.

2 out of 5

Young Guns is on Channel 5 tomorrow, Sunday 13th November, at 11:15pm.
Young Guns is on 5USA tonight, Tuesday 30th December 2014, at 9pm. It’s sequel, Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory, follows at 11pm.

After four years and three months doing 100 Films, this became the first new film I’ve seen which has a title beginning with the letter Y — the last unaccounted-for letter. Hurrah!