- Brigitte Bardot as Object of Desire and Subject of Contempt
JEAN-LUC GODARD'S Le mépris (Contempt, 1963) is an adaptation of an Italian novel, Il disprezzo (1954) by Alberto Moravia.1 The novel and the film concentrate on the life of an ordinary (French) couple living in Italy whose marriage begins to deteriorate. The film thus exposes the division that subtends relationships between men and women in contemporary society. As such, the representation of shattered sexual relationships allows for hegemonic ideologies and their structures to be addressed and challenged. In Godard's film, this challenge is upheld by contempt felt by the wife, Camille, towards her husband, Paul. The role of the wife is played by Brigitte Bardot, a sixties star whose fame was based on her ideal femininity, corresponding to a deterministic and dominant conception of women to connote, according to Laura Mulvey, "to be-looked-at-ness."2
In Contempt, Bardot portrays 'the beautiful wife' of Paul whose dominant stance is complicated by her growing contempt towards him. Godard's depiction of Bardot has already been pointed out in numerous studies devoted to the film.3 Moreover, the representation of women is a central issue in Contempt, as Nicholas Paige confirms: "Le Mépris strikes me as a good place to begin to think about the ways in which Godard tried to come to grips with very concrete changes in the image economy of the early 1960s."4 This image economy oscillates between fiction and documentary, with Bardot lying at the center of this tension. Mulvey and Colin MacCabe claim that Godard is the filmmaker who has most often captured the exploitation of women as images in consumer society.5 However, Godard's position is not straightforward, as his œuvre both enables a critique of the construction of women as images and is complicit in that construction. This study will examine the ambiguity of Godard's position in Contempt by investigating the image of woman.
This article will explore the act of looking that is central to Contempt, in its observation and interrogation of ordinary life that Godard's cameraman Raoul Coutard conducts by directing his camera at the audience, as well as at Godard's camera, thereby inviting an investigation of outside (dominant) reality projected onto the screen where the female figure of Bardot is displayed. The act of looking in Godard's film will be associated with Maurice Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, which challenges traditional ways of looking by focusing on perception associated with emotion.6 [End Page 113]
The image of Bardot and the Mulveyan gaze
The credits and first scene are noticeable in their form, but also in their carrying the most significant elements of the film, such as the relation between the look and the image of women in cinema. Following the credits, which end on the famous shot of Coutard's camera turning towards Godard's or the screen harboring the audience, the introductory scene cuts to a still medium shot of Bardot and Michel Piccoli (the husband) lying on a bed. Although the mise-enscène shares no continuity with the following sequence, the credits' final shot can still be viewed as a fluid transition to the following sequence by drawing our close attention, or look, to an intimate scene between husband and wife. Intimate it is, with Bardot lying naked on the bed, showing only her back to her husband lying fully clothed in front of her. As the camera draws closer to them, the wife Camille starts asking her husband Paul whether he can see her feet in the mirror. Looking at her with his face shadowed by hers, he answers in the affirmative. The screen is red, with George Delerue's Camille-themed music playing in the background. Camille continues to ask Paul in succession which part of her body he likes the most, enumerating them all, from her feet to her ears. Each time, Paul answers in the affirmative, adding at times a very short sentence such as "oui, très," "oui, j'aime beaucoup tes genoux" or "aussi." When Camille asks, "qu'est-ce que tu préfères, mes seins ou...