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Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt) Is Beautiful If Naked on Lionsgate’s 4K Disc

Photo: Lionsgate.

In recognition of the film’s 60th anniversary and its recent remastering and screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Lionsgate has released Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic French New Wave classic Le Mépris (Contempt) on a new 4K UHD and Blu-ray disc. The release is more than welcome: Le Mépris is a spectacularly beautiful, haunting, subversive film long due for remastering, and this new version of Godard’s self-reflexive masterpiece will not disappoint in that regard. The disc package is, as such editions go, pretty bare-bones, featuring only a brief introduction by Colin MacCabe. In essence, like its star, Brigette Bardot, this edition of Le Mépris is beautiful, if naked.

The film is something of an outlier for Godard, following his low-budget debut A bout de souffle (Breathless), which alongside his then-friend Francois Truffaut’s Le quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows), kickstarted the French Nouvelle Vague, a movement that spread like wildfire across much of the globe, impacting filmmakers almost everywhere. That lovers-on-the-lam takeoff on American film noir, shot largely ad hoc in the streets and edited in its inimitable jump-cut style, became the movement’s signature film. Le Mépris was his sixth film, his first international co-production, his first adaptation of a novel (Alberto Moravia’s 1954 Il Disprezo / A Ghost at Noon), and his first to feature internationally recognized stars.

And yet, despite its estimable budget and recognizable stars, Godard makes the film his own funny, sad, subversive, commentary on commercial filmmaking, blending his own unique visual style with brilliant Technicolor and magnificent settings. Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is a young playwright working on rewrites of  an adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey, a film in production being directed by Fritz Lang (playing a version of himself) and produced by a gauche American, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance). The workplace tensions are considerable: Prokosch, Lang, and Javal all debate the intentions of the characters in Homer, with the bullying producer calling the shots and doubling down on his commercial vision.

With its stars and setting (and its haunting Georges Delerue score), Le Mépris may be Godard’s outwardly most accessible film, but it’s no less rich in meaning nor less challenging in its construction than any of his films. His script tackles questions of adaptation in cinema while radically reinventing the Moravia source novel itself. It opines on questions of aspect ratio: Lang-as-Lang dismisses widescreen as good only “for snakes and parades” while Godard’s own compositions make full use of every inch of the frame. It places its name star, the impossibly beautiful Bardot, at the time arguably the most recognizable face—and body—in cinema, naked from behind on camera, ostensibly for the male gaze but in a way that simultaneously critiques cinema’s commodification and objectification of the female form. A long second act, something of a remake/deconstruction of a similar scene in A Bout de souffle, features the two married lovers alone in their apartment, deconstructing their relationship as it wriggles about in its death throes.

Lionsgate’s 4K remaster was restored by StudioCanal, from the original 35mm negative and its interpositive as well as a 2002 reference print by the film’s cinematographer Raoul Coutard, with special attention to defects of color and lighting from wear. The new 4K restoration has especially beautiful coloring, from the bright blue of the Gulf of Salerno to the candy red of Palance’s sportster, and much improved detail, to the point where you can make out the individual stubble hairs on Piccoli’s chin. I won’t go so far as to say it’s the best restoration imaginable, but if you are at all a fan of Godard’s or even of cinema more broadly, this new version is worth if for nothing else than its impeccably handsome coloration and detail.

Cover of Lionsgate 4K Disc of Le Mepris/Contempt.

The remastering is a vast improvement on the only home media version I’ve seen to date: Criterion’s long out-of-print two-disc DVD special edition from 2002. That version deserves special mention here. As per usual, Criterion went deep with its special features, which included an excellent full-length audio commentary track by film scholar Robert Stam (whose book Reflexivity in Film and Culture addresses Le Mépris directly); an interview with the film’s D.P. Coutard; a pithy, prickly filmed conversation between Godard and Lang from 1967; two additional short documentaries featuring Godard on the set of Le Mépris; not to mention a handsome cover design by Michael Boland and a booklet featuring a thoughtful and wide-ranging essay excerpted from Phillip Lopate’s Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. Criterion’s bouquet of special features makes it still the definitive package, but if you’re lucky enough to own, after these 20 years, its double-disc DVD edition, this transfer is one you deserve the opportunity to see, at least once.

Lionsgate’s is reportedly a MOD (Made on Demand) release, for those readers and collectors to whom that mattes. Amazon appears to be offering this Lionsgate 4K version of the film alongside StudioCanal’s Blu-ray with a few slight features at a discounted price. For what it’s worth, I was unable to toggle on English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing on the Lionsgate disc provided for review. Doing so enabled subtitles only for the lines of dialogue spoken in French, but not for any of the lines spoken in English. The difficulty of international production in translation is something of a motif in Le Mépris: Piccoli’s character speaks only limited English, Palance’s no French, with his assistant (Georgia Moll) left to translate all of their dialogue.

Nothing else is exactly what you get with Lionsgate, save for the brief, if commendable, McCabe introduction. Like Bardot herself, the package is about as naked as can be, and while the restoration is certainly beautiful, it’s special features like Criterion’s that place a film like Le Mépris in context. It’s hard not to wish for The Collection to offer an updated 4K version with all of their extant features, plus perhaps a few more, maybe including Moravia’s novel, in a swank new package. But with Lionsgate owning the rights, that’s not happening, at least not now.

Even so, Le Mépris in 4K is, like its star, a sight to behold.

Le Mépris (Contempt) is available for the suggested retail price of $24.99 for 4K Digital and on 4K Blu-ray for $28.99.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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