Certainly the most conspicuous dimension of Jean-Luc Godard's refusal of the Hollywood aesthetic is his departure from
traditional narrative structure. Godard does not begin with exposition and then proceed to lay down a straightforward narrative
arc. Instead, the exposition often lasts throughout the film, and the narrative circles back on itself rather than moving
forward toward a clear resolution. As David Bordwell puts it in his analysis of Godard's deployment of narrative, Godard
delays and distributes his exposition more than any other director. For Bordwell, Godard is a representative figure of art-film
narration, a narration that he opposes to that of the classical Hollywood type. But Godard's distance from Hollywood
should not be measured primarily by his attitude toward narrative. It is instead his insistence on depicting sexual antagonism
in his early films that separates him not only from the Hollywood aesthetic but from most auteurs outside of Hollywood as
The fundamental form that contemporary ideology takes is the idea that the romantic union has the ability to resolve antagonism.
Even as belief in social authorities wanes, the belief in the complementary partner who would resolve the subject's lack
in a romantic union remains almost perfectly unassailed. The idea of the soulmate penetrates the most cynical veneer, and
Hollywood plays an essential role in sustaining this idea. More than providing spectators with a sense of social stability
and meaning through narrative, Hollywood cinema supplies them with the ideology of romance. Godard's early films represent
a response to the predominance of this ideology.
One of the recurring ideas in the early films of Godard is their insistence on the antagonism that haunts every couple.
This is evident in À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960), Une Femme Est une Femme (A Woman Is a Woman,
1961), Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), Alphaville (1965), and Pierrot le Fou (1965), among
many others. In his films, desires never match up no matter how ideal a couple may seem. Le Mépris (Contempt,
1963) shows this disjunction of desire through the relationship between Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille Javal (Brigitte
Bardot). The film depicts the deterioration of their marriage, and it reveals the roots of this deterioration in the interplay
of their desires, desires that resist complementarity rather than facilitating it. Their relationship plays itself out against
the backdrop of Paul's decision to work on rewriting the script for a film version of The Odyssey being directed
by Fritz Lang (played by himself) and produced by American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), who hires Paul to fix the
film. Neither Paul nor Camille have a sense of what the other really wants, and this ignorance leaves them completely isolated
as desiring subjects. And yet, at the same time, both believe that they do know what the other wants, and it is this shared
belief that ultimately destroys their relationship. As Godard shows, it is the attempt to fill the emptiness of one's
desire with an actual object that destroys romance, though this is precisely what cinema typically offers its spectators.
After the opening credit sequence (in which the credits are spoken rather than written), the film begins with Paul and
Camille in bed together. Though this opening scene seems to show Paul and Camille experiencing a kind of happiness that they
would subsequently lose, it already exposes the antagonism that exists between them. Here, even at this early point, their
desires are completely at odds. At the precise moment that Paul believes he is giving Camille what she wants, he reveals
to her that he fails utterly to love her in the way that she wants to be loved. Godard reveals this through their verbal
interaction in the scene. Camille asks Paul a series of questions about his feelings toward the various parts of her body
if he loves her shoulders, her breasts, her legs, and so on. Each time, Paul avows his love for the particular body part.
After Paul responds affirmatively to all of the questions, Camille then asks him, Donc tu m'aimes totalement? [Then you
love me totally?]. Paul answers, Je t'aime totalement, tendrement, tragiquement [I love you totally, tenderly, tragically].
Here, Paul seems to express total love for Camille - precisely what we would assume that she wants to hear. However, as Paul
is speaking, Camille looks down away from his face, seemingly disappointed with this response. This show of disappointment
stems from Paul's belief that she constitutes a whole that he can love totally.
Paul's love for Camille can only be total in this way as long as it ignores what Jacques Lacan would call her objet
a, what is in Camille more than her and yet cannot be reduced to any positive characteristic. This is what Camille recognizes
in Paul's profession of total love and in his response to each of her questions. When Paul hears each of Camille's
questions about his feelings for the different parts of her body, he assumes that she wants him to express his love for each
body part. But what this assumption misses is the irreducibility of desire to the signifier. Camille wants something more
than what she seems to be asking for. She herself doesn't know what she wants, but it is clear that she doesn't simply
desire the affirmation that Paul gives. She wants Paul to desire the something extra in her that cannot be located in any
particular body part (or in all of them added together). Because Paul reduces the objet a to a series of empirical objects,
he is able to view Camille as a whole, a being without any gaps that would resist this totalizing procedure. He thus relates
to Camille narcissistically, never acknowledging that there is a part of her that resists his image of her. This narcissism
allows Paul to avoid confronting Camille's desire and to avoid enduring the fundamental deadlock of desire itself. In
this sense, rather than marking an ideal that is later lost, this opening scene sets the tone for the entire film: all of
the later disjunctions between Paul and Camille's desire are prefigured in this scene. Here, Godard shows the inability
of the romantic union to overcome the deadlock of desire and deliver any degree of respite from it.
This scene also enacts this revelation on the audience. It is well known that Godard added this scene under pressure from
his producers for nude shots of Brigitte Bardot. In delivering what the producers (and undoubtedly many audience members)
want, however, Godard actually reveals the inability of the filmic image to deliver this object. This becomes evident through
the way in which Godard constructs this scene. He shoots Camille lying on her stomach on a bed with Paul sitting on the bed
next to her. The scene begins with the image tinted red, which has the effect of partially obscuring Bardot's body.
The red color suggests eroticism and, at the same time, produces a sense of anticipation for what will be revealed. As the
camera pans down Bardot's body in order to focus on her butt, the red tint disappears, and we see her body in natural
light. After the pan concludes as the camera returns back up her body, the light again shifts, this time from natural light
to a blue tint.
In this scene, Godard foregrounds the naked backside of Bardot as the object of desire, but he also constitutes this object
as impossible. One can view it only indirectly, through a tinted lens or through a panning camera. The use of color and
the pan highlights the failure of the image to capture the object. Just as Paul and Camille cannot connect on the level of
desire in this scene, the spectator remains unable to relate successfully to the object in this image. Here we see the evidence
for David Sterritt's claim that Godard's works are haunted by the invisible.2 Even in the seemingly complete visibility
of the nude scene, Godard's film emphasizes what we can't see more than what we can. This emphasis on the invisibleon
what resists visibility and visionallows us to experience the object in its absence.
In the subsequent interactions between Camille and Paul, we see the underlying antagonism between the two come to the surface.
This becomes most apparent through Paul's attempts to leave Camille alone with Jerry Prokosch, who clearly has sexual
designs on Camille. This first occurs when Jerry offers to drive Camille to his flat while Paul takes a taxi. Camille says
that she wants to remain with Paul, but Paul opens the door of Jerry's car for her and even ushers her into the car.
From this moment on, Camille's contempt for Paul becomes obvious. Later, while on a location shoot in Capri, Paul repeats
this behavior when Jerry again makes advances on Camille, asking her to go with him to his villa. Again, rather than resisting
this coupling or even remaining neutral, Paul encourages Camille to go with Jerry, in effect pushing her into the other man's
arms. Paul pushes Camille toward Jerry in order to clarify her desire, to find a way of resolving his relationship to this
desire. The contempt that Camille feels for Paul stems from his refusal to sustain the position of the desiring subject.
He wants a clear resolution to her desire rather than the desire itself.
Neither Paul nor Camille is able to estimate correctly the desire of the other. As he tells Camille, Paul takes the job
rewriting the script for The Odyssey because he believes that this is what she wants. The script will help to pay
for the construction of their apartment and the upper-middle class life that Paul assumes Camille desires. However, Camille
reveals to Paul that she likes the apartment only because Paul seems to desire it. Paul acts in order to address a desire
that Camille doesn't have, and Camille creates the impression of having this desire in order to address Paul's desire
for it. What results is a loop of misunderstanding that no one can close. In fact, just before she leaves Paul, Camille
says that she will never reveal the reason for her contempt for him, even if she were dying. Le Mépris shows that
desire is this kind of failure to discern the desire of the other, which always remains an impossible object even in the closest
The struggle between Camille and Paul takes place amid the struggle between Jerry and Fritz Lang over Lang's film of
The Odyssey. It is tempting (and in some sense correct) to view Lang as the moral center of Le Mépris, as Wheeler
Winston Dixon does.3 Lang expresses a classical ideal that stands against Jerry's vulgarity and commercialization. But
the problem with this idea of Lang as an ideal is that, unlike Camille and Paul, he does not experience the traumatic impossibility
of an intractable desire. He suffers from no uncertainty about what he wants but must simply navigate an external barrier
- the American producer Jerry - to the realization of his aims. In this sense, though they occupy opposed positions ethically,
there is a kind of similarity between Lang and Jerry. Neither Lang nor Jerry experiences the deadlock of desire - Lang because
he exists nostalgically in a tragic universe in which one can reconcile oneself to absence rather than struggling against
it, and Jerry because he refuses to acknowledge absence as such and instead treats is as a merely empirical obstacle. Both
Lang and Jerry know precisely what they want. They have clear visions about what they want in the film: Lang wants to create
a film that captures the grandeur of the Greeks and the heroic struggle of Odysseus, and Jerry wants a film that titillates
Despite Lang's heroic insistence on his vision in the face of Jerry's pressure, the film depicts Lang as an ethical
but ultimately ineffectual character. His ethical position is no longer tenable. The shots that we see from Lang's film
within the film reveal the problems with Lang's aesthetic sensibility and ethical position in the film. The shots depict
immobile statues of Greek gods and heroes and, alternately, highly stylized actors enacting the characters from The Odyssey.
Unlike Godard's film itself (in which Lang's film exists), Lang's film is completely uncinematic. The scenes
are static, and when we do see the characters acting, they lack the heroic grandeur that the majestic statues suggest. Through
this juxtaposition, Godard stresses the anachronistic quality of Lang's vision. One can no longer make this type of film
- if one ever could - because it tries to sustain a static world rather than acceding to a world of desire, but it tries to
do so within the world of desire (using actors and sets from that world). Like Jerry's vision of the perfect fantasmatic
film, Lang's film attempts to avoid confronting the problems wrought by desire. This has the effect of undermining the
ethical status that Lang seems to hold in the film.
Lang's ethical position is further undermined by the manner in which he opposes himself to Jerry. Jerry represents
the ideological force that commands subjects to compromise their desire, and while Lang does resist Jerry, he does not do
so effectively. When Lang ironically undermines Jerry, he either does so in a language Jerry doesn't understand (most
often French) or through an allusion that Jerry misses. As a result, Jerry never directly experiences Lang's critique
of him, nor does it have any effect on him. While on the one hand this represents a clear indictment of Jerry (as when, for
instance, Lang associates what Jerry says with what the fascists used to say), on the other hand, it reveals Lang's ultimate
fecklessness in the face of Jerry. Lang puts up the show of resistance to Jerry, but in the end he capitulates not only in
allowing Jerry to change his film but also in never directly confronting him. This failure emphasizes the problems with Lang's
position in the contemporary world. Even though Paul and Camille fail to sustain the position of the desiring subject, they
do remain closer to this ideal than Lang.
Despite its show of appreciation for the position that Lang represents, Le Mépris reveals the limitation inherent
in it. By refusing to confront the impossibility of desire, Lang removes himself from the struggle of sexuality itself.
In the opposite manner than that of Jerry, he retreats from a sexualized world. Though Lang as a character and as a filmmaker
acknowledges absence, he does not allow it to animate him as a desiring subject. He wants to mark the presence of absence
without allowing it to disturb the field of vision within his film. As a result, the sympathy of Le Mépris lies with
Paul and Camille, even as it depicts their respective failures and the undoing of their relationship.
The critique of romantic love put forth in Le Mépris in no way invalidates romance itself as a project. Instead,
it resists the image of romance as an arena in which one can overcome the impossibility constitutive of desire. Romance does
not provide a ground on which the subject can discover a fantasmatic reconciliation, but it does offer a place where the subject
can experience the failure of any fantasy to capture the objet a. Like the other early films of Godard, Le Mépris
exposes the impossibility of the object within the romantic relationship, which is precisely where contemporary ideologyand
Hollywood cinemalocates the object as a possibility. In this sense, it is the quintessentially anti-Hollywood film. It asks
to resist accepting a resolution of desire and to insist on embracing the troubled position of the desiring subject. In so
doing, we sustain our freedom.