Godard’s Contempt (1963) is the story of circumstance; one where two people at opposite ends of several spectrums fall in love with what the other represents along that spectrum, only to be driven apart when they realize their differences preempt their coexistence. This realization occurs only after Paul (Michel Piccoli) accepts an offer to rewrite the screenplay for The Odyssey.
With respect to writing, Paul is at the creative end of that spectrum. His wife, Camille (Brigette Bardot), was once (she quit her job to be with Paul) at the opposite end: a typist. The difference is one where Paul uses his intellect to put ink to paper, and Camille puts ink to paper with her fingers. Godard is clear about not using this difference between them in occupation as a comment on the relative roles of men and women in the workplace (the translator in the film, Francesca (Giorgia Moll) is beautiful, educated and intelligent – she matches quotes from obscure works with Fritz (Fritz Lang) and outtranslates him), but rather to demonstrate the differences in how each approaches life: Paul rationalizes his way through life; Camille, feels (fingers to keyboard) her way around.
Paul’s wont to rationalize leads him to pitch a different motivation for Ulysses’ leaving Penelope to Fritz at Jerry’s (Jack Palance) villa. Here, Godard has Paul use his intellect to recreate the meaning of a classic story (by this time, Camille and Paul’s story), and demonstrate Paul’s neurotic need for rationalization within that story. An earlier example is when Paul arrives late at Jerry’s place after insisting Camille go ahead with Jerry in his two-seater. After arriving, Camille wants to know what kept Paul. Paul says “nothing” (denying his lateness), then gives an accounting of an accident that took up some time. In other words, it was not him that was late, but circumstances (accident) that made him late. Paul’s dialogue confirms this rationalization. When Camille presses him with: Why what? Paul is incapable of saying, “Why I was late.” Instead he says, “Why I arrived late.”
This tendency to rationalize (as opposed to a tendency to feel; Camille’s tendency) places the couple at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum as well. An example of this is when Camille arrives on the set and she tells Fritz she likes his movie M; whereas Paul proceeds to break down a scene from the movie for Fritz. The difference is one between an appreciation for a movie (emotional attachment to the “soul” of the movie) and an accounting of a scene within the movie (emotional attachment to the mechanics of the movie.) It is not that Paul is incapable of emotion (he demonstrates love, rage, bewilderment, hurt, jealousy at different times throughout the movie), but rather that his emotional capital is invested in all that is rational. An example of this is when Camille, off by herself (pouting after the previous argument about Paul being late), is looking at a book containing suggestive works of art. When Jerry walks by, he notices the tone of the content. When Paul walks to her (realizing she’s pouting), he doesn’t notice the book at all and, instead, badgers Camille about not answering Francesca earlier. To underscore Paul’s lack of emotional understanding, Paul then caresses Camille’s leg, and when she doesn’t respond, convinces himself that it’s because his hands are dirty. Paul is not only emotionally blind, he’s a black hole of emotional understanding. He absorbs emotion, but is unable to relate to it on an emotional level, and is therefore unable to reciprocate emotionally.
His view of women in general is expressed in the apartment scene when he knocks on the hollow metal sculpture of a woman three times. He notes the sounds are not the same, indicating the technical composition of the sculpture is what’s important as opposed to what the sculpture means as a work of art.
This chasm between Camille, who wears her emotions on her sleeves, and Paul who operates on an emotionless plane is the chink in their relationship. It’s also the chink exploited by Jerry to rupture that relationship. Camille recognizes Jerry as a wolf, and initially props up Paul emotionally even when her reactions to Jerry’s advances, and Paul’s refusal to acknowledge them, upset her. Clearly she still loves him. Yet at every opportunity, Paul refuses to acknowledge Jerry’s challenges until it’s too late. By then, all that’s left for Paul from everyone present is contempt.