Le mépris is a “diamond, in the sense that it has multiple facets and each reflects a different meaning”. One such facet has strongly endured in my memory, stricken by the warm atmosphere of the natural and constructed space.
I revisited the film several times, convinced it was my eye of an architect, familiar with the history of architecture, that hooked me to the image of Casa Malaparte, such an icon of twentieth-century architecture. But I soon realised that the strength of the film did not stem solely from the house, and the meaning I sought for shines through in other details of the work. The house was simply one of the many mechanisms that aided the operation of an ingeniously assembled machine. which this essay will further analyze/explore.
ARTWORK OPERATING AS QUOTE
In his 1967 essay La mort de l’auteur, Roland Barthes develops the thesis that the creative piece is a summation of infinite quotations, of crisscrossing ideas from a common cultural past. These intersections constitute semantic anomalies that seek to provoke the viewer to interpret them: first in their literal meaning; secondly, entering uncharted waters, into symbolic meaning.
The Dadaists and Surrealists embodied this thesis, using the strangeness strategy as a motor for modern artistic creation. The ready-made L.H.O.O.Q, made by Marcel Duchamp in 1919, is an excellent example. Over a postcard of the iconic Mona Lisa, the artist represented a mustache, reshaping the meaning of the work. By questioning the artistic condition of the object, Duchamp asking the viewer to reinterpret it.
A MODERN CLASSICAL FILM
Synopsis (Spoiler Alert): Homer's Odyssey is being shot in Capri under the direction of Fritz Lang. The film's producer - the american Prokosch - does not like Lang's sophisticated version and asks screenwriter Paul Javal to rewrite the argument. He meets in the meanwhile, Camille, Paul's beautiful wife, and intends to seduce her. Camille seems to be pleased by the idea, so much so that she begins to express contempt for her husband. It's the reunion of everyone at Prokosch's vacation home that will trigger the end of the marital relationship.
In telling the story about the end of love, Le mépris gravitates around the theory of Roland Barthes. The film is the finished example of a work of art that, in an extremely creative way, appropriates the most varied quotes and symbologies. Using various literary, cinematic and architectural fragments, Godard creates a “new discourse” in which tradition, inserted in a modern context and environments, is subject to a new reading.
The question that remains is: what is the greatest meaning the director aims to convey when bringing together the various references and symbologies that make up his film?
When Godard talks about choosing the island of Capri as the location for the second part of the film, he leaves a clue:
“The second part of the film is set in Capri; it uses the exceptional location of Casa Malaparte, surrounded by huge and imposing wild rocks, which plunge directly into the kingdom of Poseidon, which we must not forget, is one of the few gods who does not love Ulysses and does not protect him. It is for this reason that the geographical location of the house is so important. Alone in front of the sea, the house will reinforce the idea of an Odyssean world, providing you with an almost tangible reality and presence”
These words indicate that the film intends to recreate the mythological world of the gods. To achieve this, Godard boldly uses cinematographic tools that best convey a divine atmosphere or presence. When watching the film, the viewer is immersed in this world and feels it in an almost physical way. However, it is important to make it clear that the director did not intend to reproduce the old world, long lost, but to reinterpret it considering the vices and vicissitudes of modern man, through an innovative cinematic language. This is the key point; this is how, making a classic-modern film, the author empathizes with the audience.
The question is, what cinematographic tools were used to recreate this new world? There were several tools that the filmmaker had at his disposal when he made the film. However, to achieve a true mythological dimension there are four that are considered essential:
The love story between Paul and Camille is the central theme of the narrative. It is the story of a failed love (some see in the film a reflection of Godard's marital complications with Anna Karina), lost throughout the film.
The parallel between this love story and the story of Ulysses and Penelope is drawn when Paul reflects on Ulysses' disinterest in his wife, who he thinks was unfaithful to him. The film thus puts side by side two stories of failed love. And it is through this parallel that Godard plays in two tenses - present and mythical past - with the theme of infidelity. An infidelity that ultimately hurts the relationship between Paul and Camille.
In addressing such a timely - timeless even - subject Godard confines the viewer, causing him to ponder over one of the problems that afflict romantic relationships. As the movie progresses, the viewer becomes increasingly worn out, overcome by a feeling of deep insecurity. Godard connects the mythological world with reality but does not allow the viewer to surrender to imagination and experience an “Odyssey” in full force, forcing him to relocate his feet to the ground at all times.
The first part of the film takes place in Rome at Cinecittà, and in the home of Paul and Camille. However, the true mythological dimension is only revealed to the viewer in the space where the second and final part takes place, the island of Capri in Naples.
The environment is the Mediterranean coast, a region marked by the softness of its mountains, the fertility of its land, the kindness of its climate and the presence of the sea. This land is presented in all its grandeur and glory; in a palette of colors, highlighting the grey of the great cliffs over the sea, the dry green of the woods, the serene blue of the waters and the warm yellow of the sun. A true pictorial spectacle that, however, does not spare the viewer of the dual sensation, simultaneously loving and threatening, that nature provokes in us.
Through opting for a contradictory environment, whose organic forms open at times a path of daydream for the viewer, other times one of fear and discomfort, the director reveals his genius. In the chosen landscape, fear can be induced by the monumentality and severity of the cliffs; and reverie by the tranquility of the sea and the warmth of the sun. Godard filmed the rich Mediterranean landscape because he wanted to present a reality over an idyllic setting, loaded with myth.
To complete his mythological formula, the director sought in architecture the color he was missing: “From a chromatic point of view, the whole second part will be dominated by the deep blue of the sea, the red of the house and the yellow of the sun: there is a certain trichotomy close to the classic formula.”
Indeed, where the land meets the sea, a red architecture seems to be born from the cliff itself. The exceptional features of this place required architect Adalberto Libera to free himself from conventions and the weight of history. Attempting to meld the house onto the rock, the author designed an oblique prism, which subtly adapts to the dynamics of the surrounding topography.
This fabulous object not only harmonizes perfectly with its natural setting, it has a very interesting impact on the film as well. With its ambiguous form, it emulates an almost abstract framework which reinforces the mythological dimension, assuming itself as the ideal stage to trigger the viewer's imagination with the most varied questions: is it a temple dedicated to Poseidon? A private house of the twentieth century with pure and modern lines? An isolated prison hard to reach? A stranded ship? An amphitheater facing the ocean?
Godard directs his movie with few characters, all of which well chosen. There is, however, one that stands out: Camille, masterfully played by Brigitte Bardot, a star whose blinding presence floods the screen.
Such a presence is essentially due to her physical attributes: blonde, beautiful, and endowed with a perfect body, as if the goddess Aphrodite herself. Such attributes are valued for their costume design throughout the film. The light and cool summer tones of her ensembles are in total harmony with the surrounding. When J. Maragal comments on Joaquim Sunyer's La Pastoral, he emphasizes the affinities between the female character and the Mediterranean environment of the work. I find his comment very fitting to Camille's character:
“I seem to find myself in a crossroads of our mountains, these hills so characteristic of our Catalonian land, rough and smooth at the same time, simply as clean as our soul… Here is the woman in La Pastoral de Sunyer: she is the flesh of the landscape: it is the landscape that while coming to life has become flesh. That woman there is not a coincidence, but a fatality: it is the whole story of creation: the founding effort that produced the curves of the mountains could not stop itself until the curves of the human body were produced. The woman and the landscape are two degrees of the same thing; and the artist fascinated by the landscape lines will see sprouting from his brush, unwittingly, the lines of the woman's body”
In suggesting the timeless figure of Penelope, the enigmatic wife, Brigitte Bardot also gives the character Camille an almost mythical dimension.
I conclude by summarizing the ideas that have been addressed along these lines. The text talks about cinema, but more than that, it aims to demonstrate how Godard is a complete artist, with a creativity comparable to that of other artists from different branches of expression.
Godard takes a series of quotes and metaphors and reinterprets them in a new, completely modern film. One of the angles he tries to regain is that of a mythological world. In Le mépris, the director escapes the “conventional” mythological themes (which the viewer knows from romantic literature and painting) and recreates them in ways adjusted to our current reality.
These recreations are consolidated through four cinematographic tools: the theme of infidelity, the Mediterranean atmosphere, CasaMalaparte and the character of Camille.
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- written in 2018