The movie I wish everyone to watch before reading this post begins with a man and woman in bed. It is impossible to experience today the same movies that American moviegoer’s saw in 1963. This is especially true in the opening scene of “Contempt.” First of all, it was risqué to introduce his leading lady in full-length nude. Godard raises visual parody to a high order, using the image to distract the audience from comprehending the critical turn in the heroine’s life that is transpiring before our eyes on onscreen. It’s intentionally and cleverly misleading. The director presents her posed like a sex pot, but she’s really more like a piece of stone sculpture. It’s the pivotal moment when Camille’s love for Paul begins to go cold.
Camille is played by Brigit Bardot. Under an assortment of candy flavored light temperatures, the naked secretary is tucked into a hairy chested hunk. Godard presents her, hind-end up, across a shaggy spread. There jiggles a perverse mix of raw materials for exploring the range human instincts. Camille’s body marks the crossroads between classic sculpture and pop pin-up. The man she is talking to is no less than her boss, her lover, a celebrated writer Paul. Because of Paul’s bland dialog and the fact that Camille’s naked body is taking up ninety percent of the frame, its an effort just to apportion even a little attention to Paul’s presence.
They’ve just had sex. That much is obvious. Why else would Paul be so sedate in the company of this naked goddess? It wasn’t until the third time I watched that I suspected the sex they had must not have done it for Camille. More to the point, the most audacious filmmaker of the French New Wave collaborated with the most identifiable international sex symbols of the early 1960’s to test the emotional IQ of their audience. “Do you like my nipples more or my breasts?” she asks. “I like them both the same,” Paul murmers like some satiated pussy cat.
Camille sounds like she’s trolling for compliments, but this is actually an interrogation. Paul soars on auto-pilot through the afterglow. The blatant way she feeds it to him would have woken me up, had I been he, I hope. See if you agree. Once you are privy to Camille’s inquisition, do you sense her contempt and how it changes the entire movie?
On the one hand, Godard jokes with us here about how sex short-circuits long range planning. With Bardot’s behind exposed in pin-up pose,we’re being played with too. Camille toys with her audience, when she twists her boyfriend in knots, exposing every infantile bone. The man she’s talking to is supposedly an artist. He only ever responds with a word or two and never gives away his thoughts. Even though he’s gazing at a golden goddess and she volleys one opportunity after another to demonstrate his powers, he responds without attaching the slightest personal touch. When she’s had enough of his limp flattery, she says, “So you love me totally?” He answers yes and its all downhill from there.
When this crucial turning point is missed, the movie seems erratic. It seemed sudden, at least to me, on first viewing, when Camille starts acting mean. I admit Paul’s not making much sense by then. In place of his feelings for her, he talks about their flat. The flat is where they hold up and argue for the entire second act.
That clash in “Contempt” became much more interesting when I realized that she was holding back, even before Paul urges her to get in the car with the crass movie producer. Their life and times together had been about Paul’s talent, Paul’s career, Paul’s priorities. The shift of power becomes clear in the crash of dishes, tugs of war and slamming of doors. Things remain unspoken that none-the-less ring loud and clear. Camille was just a mere typist before they became romantically involved and she turns out to be the one with the requisite drive, self-esteem and ear. She simply insists on being treated seriously, not just some dish. I’m such a clod, I confess, I saw it three times before I realized this.
In Act III they no sooner arrive in Capri then Paul flirts with some other kitty. Camille busts him in the act. She retaliates by undertaking an affair with the movie producer for whom Paul harbors some contempt. Then Paul strikes out completely by leaving it up to Camille to decide whether he should return to Rome immediately with her or remain in Capri and work for the great Fritz Lang.
As a writer of film reviews, the person that reviewed “Nymph()maniac, Part 1 & 2” in a local weekly that I read is like the character of Paul in Godard’s “Contempt”. As a reader of his reviews I am like Camille. Well get back to “Contempt” in another post, for now, proceed with me to where we left off in the last one.
I have now seen “Nymph()maniac” Vol. 2, and read the same small town movie reviewer’s blithe dismissal. He called both Volumes of Lars Von Trier’s new movie shit. Lets talk about the subject of shit in motion pictures because, in a movie like, “Salo: 120 Days of Sodom,” there is a different variety of deviance on display but what’s worth mentioning about it is the relevance of excrement in the third act of “Salo” serves the same purpose as the whip in the third act of “Nymph()maniac” Vol 2. If anyone in the audience were, up to this point, able to surf around the unseemly circumstances of the characters in the movie and cling to some shred of erotic stimulus from the earlier setups, both filmmakers rake them out of your grasps, in the Act III climax, when human actions grossly escalate to defy common sense. Not surprisingly, those kinds of images stick in our heads more than any other. The reason why? Memory switches to long-term mode whenever it things venture out of bounds. Brain is caring for our survival by not letting us forget a threat. So I wonder if both films serve to heap more forbiddance upon the very taboos they examine.
Anyway, it is a curious mix of amazement and disgust that sticks with me after watching this new movie of Von Trier’s, “Nymph()maniac,” but that’s not a bad thing. The film is merely churning up some of what’s under the surface of this modern, media-mad culture. Contrary to the movie reviewer I read’s claim of misogyny, Von Trier’s clearly weaving a spell of sympathy for his protagonist and while she’s no role model, anyone that sticks with this movie is going to relate with Jo at some point.
Like Jo, we of the wired world would be wise to beware of becoming numb to ordinary stimulus. Jo’s premature and extreme exploits bleached her senses to such an extent that she could feel nothing without subjecting herself to extreme pain and degradation. Call it shit if you want. Anatomy of self-hate comes closer to it for me. Lots of folks suffer with it. Von Trier exposes this condition so sensitively, he’s practically admitting to be one of them.
to be continued…