“Real life” relationship issues and conversations are a tricky thing to depict on screen. They’re weirdly meandering, filled with in-jokes and unique interpersonal references, and can be kind of boring to watch. But somehow, midway through this film, Jean-Luc Godard pulls off not only capturing a true-to-life feeling couples’ argument, he makes it matter.
Paul (Michel Piccoli) is a young French playwright who’s been tapped for a film adaptation of The Odyssey, rewriting the script to resolve creative differences between the smarmy American producer “Jeremy Prokosch” (Jack Palance) and director Fritz Lang (playing himself). Paul brings his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) with him to the set in Italy, where she comes to meet him after his first meeting; Prokosch is so taken with her he spontaneously invites everyone back to his villa for drinks. But whoopsie, there’s only room in his car for one person! So, how about Camille rides with him and everyone else can follow in a taxi?….
It’s pretty obvious that Camille is less than thrilled by this suggestion, but Paul agrees – and shows up late to the villa after his taxi gets a flat tire. Prokosch is still his smarmy self, and Camille seems upset – sulking all through their drinks and then all the way back home. There, over the course of nearly 20 minutes, Paul and Camille have a long slow simmer of an argument and their marriage falls apart without either one realizing it just yet. They try to put it behind them with a trip to Prokosch’s other villa in Capri (and that trip is one of the things they were arguing about ) – but the trip only confirms things for Camille, driving her to make a hasty, and ultimately tragic, decision.
In a weird way, this film reminded me of parts of the more recent film Marriage Story; in both films, the plot hinges on an argument between a married couple which ultimately severs their connection. But the argument in Marriage Story is a no-holds-barred shouting match, with Adam Driver and Scarlet Johannson exploding months’ worth of pain on each other, while the argument in Contempt is a more organic and subtle talk, with neither party really realizing where they’re going until they get there. It’s as much of a surprise for the audience as it is for Paul when Camille says how unhappy she is. ….Well, sort of – it was clear to me how uneasy she felt in Prokosch’s company, and I’m sure a lot of other women watching were getting just as frustrated as she that Paul seemed so clueless. (And I know I’m not reading into this – towards the end, during their final conversation, Paul finally seems to Get It – but by then it’s too late.)