Paul (Michel Piccoli) is an artist without an art form. He's a former crime novel writer, aspiring playwright, unwittingly tasked to fix a screenplay. Fritz Lang is the beloved filmmaker bastardized by the impossible task of adapting the Odyssey with Godard's touch of sarcastic minimalism. Dailies show Greek statues with painted eyes, arrows drawing fake blood and so forth. Both artists represent Godard's own contempt for his chosen art form. A botched film project within a film about exploitation. But who is the true exploiter and exploitee?
Brigitte Bardot was contracted for a nude scene so Godard has her posing like a Page 3 girl. She is commodified within the story and film, a two dimensional beauty catalogued by her hair and curves. Her relationship with Paul is inconsequential within the barren landscape of the film. She stops loving her husband after he appears to pawn her off to his boss, an American film producer played by Jack Palance. Yet their love is hardly palpable, in so much as an inanimate object can love or be loved.
Jack Palance is a physical presence like one of the Greek statues, held out with Godard's usual contempt for Americans and anyone in the film business. Of course he can't communicate with anyone without a translator, his English falling on deaf ears with a thud. Godard's contempt seems for the film itself this time. Raoul Coutard's cinematography is exploited for a visual beauty without a contextual one. Palance, Bardot and Lang are treated like puppets stripped of character by their director. Yet these are trivial symptoms of the broader exploitation in Godard's nihilistic vision of the world, with no more important victim than himself.
There is no Godard film without contempt, but this time he wasn't sure where to direct it. The screenwriter is contemptible because he has no conviction. He's caught between financial practicality and an artistic sense of self. Bardot's character is contemptible because she lets her body be sold without her brain, and to an American no less. Lang is a slave and Palance a slave master of the film industry. At the end of the film, Lang continues to work, tortured by a hopeless project. “You must finish what you start,” he says, which Godard surely feels about his own work. Bardot, for hitching a ride with an American, and Palance for being a movie producer, are both killed in a car accident at the end.
Godard loathes western affectation, cinematic nostalgia and anything artists or intellectuals might collectively get exuberant about. So Paul is a fool for admiring Dean Martin's character in Some Came Running, with his hat and cigar. Quotes from books, philosophers, and/or meandering intellectual conversations pain and bewilder the audience with just that intent. The joke is on the characters cleverly quoting or conversing, and those who think any of it means something. In addition Fritz Lang and Douglas Sirk might be great directors if not for so many people starting to think so. For Godard, the love of 1950's Hollywood films was once a truth and then became a joke.
In many ways Contempt is the truest expression of Godard's convictions: contempt for the world, the cinema, his admirers and himself. Some say it is the greatest French film ever made, so perhaps his feelings were not so misplaced.