Friday, November 02, 2007


Some critics say this was the closest that French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard got to making a mainstream movie. It is beautifully shot, in widescreen and Technicolor, stars the international sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, and has a fairly accessible story, about the making of a movie, but its style is quirky, and its characters and their motivations remain elusive throughout. A basic summary might make it sound rather fun: a writer (Michel Piccoli) is in the midst of deciding whether or not to work on the screenplay of a film adaptation of Homer's Odyssey currently being shot by legendary director Fritz Lang (playing himself). However, the producer is an "ugly American" jackass (Jack Palance), and Piccoli's wife (Bardot) is unhappy with their relationship and begins a flirtation with Palance; she doesn't respect or even like Palance, but seems to be testing her husband, though what she ultimately wants remains unclear. None of this winds up being fun, but much of it is compelling and almost always lovely to watch. The narrative breaks up into thirds. The first part begins at a (bizarrely empty) film studio in Rome where dailies from the Odyssey movie are being screened, and sets up the characters and their conflicts. Lang is going for an arty approach, but Palance only seems happy with the shots of naked mermaids. Palance invites the group to meet at his villa, taking Bardot in his car--one of the best running "jokes," if you will, is that Palance only knows English and Bardot only French, so throughout their odd flirtation, neither quite knows what the other is saying.

Piccoli stands by passively, which seems to be what triggers the second part of the film, a long domestic argument between Piccoli and Bardot, set in their modern apartment, the subject matter of which is never clearly expressed. She holds him in contempt, maybe for deigning to waste his talent on the movie (he admits he really wants to write plays), maybe for not being more "possessive" of her around Palance. He slaps her and insists he's considering taking the job *for her, to get the money to pay off the recent refurnishing of their place. The final section is the aftermath, in which Piccoli decides not to take the job (with little dramatic result) and Bardot leaves him to go off with Palance (with a startling dramatic result that I won't spoil here; the ending seems like it must be loaded with meaning, but I suspect it means nothing at all in that French existential way). The pace of the movie is a bit off-putting, with the long, slow domestic argument stopping the movie dead, but the performances are all solid, though Palance is just a bit too over-the-top as the obnoxious producer/villain, supposedly modeled on Joseph E. Levine, one of the producers of CONTEMPT. There are lots and lots of movie references for fans, ranging from Nicholas Ray to PSYCHO to Dean Martin to Samuel Goldwyn's famous quote, "Include me out." I love Fritz Lang's line that Cinemascope is "only good for snakes and funerals," and Palance's "When I hear 'culture,' I reach for my checkbook." I quite enjoyed this, though I'm still not sure I'm going to search out any other Godard. [DVD]

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