Color, 1963, 103m. / Directed by Jean-Luc Godard / Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli / Criterion (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

Able to still beguile mainstream audiences today, Contempt (Le mepris) glosses its acidic message in such sensory delights as sun-dappled South of France beachscapes, a ticklish collection of international personalities, and the sultry, often undraped form of Brigitte Bardot. One of the finest films about filmmaking, this is an ideal introduction to both the French New Wave and the possibilities of cinema in general; just don't mistake it for your average Jean-Luc Godard film.

During a splashy cross-continental production of The Odyssey in Capri, Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) toils on the screeplay for director Fritz Lang (playing himself) and a boorish American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance, in a role purportedly based on actual producers like Joseph E. Levine and Carlo Ponti). When Paul sends his luscious wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), to ride with the leering Prokosch upon their arrival at the Cinecitta studios, her respect and love immediately transform to, yes, contempt. At first baffled by her change of heart, Paul gradually comes to understand how his simple gesture has caused a permanent rift in the lives of this once-happy couple.

Often cited as one of the most skillful displays of Cinemascope framing, Contempt is awash in gorgeous Technicolor hues which belie the ugly, raw emotions squirming beneath the characters' sleek facades. While Godard fanatics will delight in his trademark distancing techniques, beginning with the haunting opening sequence in which a shot of Piccoli and Bardot in bed is manipulated with a variety of tints and gels, the film offers other riches as well, most notably the opportunity to witness Lang in the last phase of career. (There's even a cheeky reference to his pair of masterful Indian adventure films, The Indian Tomb and The Tiger of Eschanpur.) Adding to the dreamy atmosphere is Georges Delerue's monothematic score, a piece so achingly beautiful Martin Scorsese later used it to kick off his Casino over thirty years later.

One of the more prestigious titles in the restored Rialto series which ran in art theaters and found its way to DVD courtesy of Criterion, Contempt took a couple of years in transit from its 35mm revival to (amazingly enough) its first presentation in Franscope on home video, but the efforts involved more than paid off. The transfer is an absolute knockout, with beautifully rendered colors and detail. The striking compositions of Bardot's burnished blonde hair composed in relief against the azure seascapes are breathtaking, and there's nary a print flaw in sight. If ever there was a title that screamed out to be viewed on a 16:9 monitor, this is it. The audio is presented in 2.0 stereo, though the film is mostly dialogue-driven and offers little in the way of fancy separation effects. It does sound robust and crystal clear, however.

The first half of Criterion's double-disc set is dedicated to the film itself, with commentary by film scholar Robert Stam. Obviously this was a fairly intricate shoot, with an iconoclastic director accommodating commercial demands in the most uncommercial terms possible while juggling an international cast. He efficiently dissects Godard's directorial quirks which are more in evidence here, right from the spoken word opening credits (which probably had more than a passing influence on the equally color-coded Fahrenheit 451 by Francois Truffaut). Then on to disc two, which contains a host of goodies beginning with "The Dinosaur and the Baby," an hour-long discussion between Godard and Lang in which they discuss a variety of art forms, the role of the cinema, their collaboration together, and much more. Godard turns up again in a 9-minute interview segment from 1964, in which he chats about his attitude towards critics, his filming style, and more. Two films shot on location, "Bardot et Godard" (8 minutes) and "Paparazzi" (22 minutes), offer on-the-fly coverage of the film's location shooting, with the latter depicting Bardot as the most desirable trophy for a seemingly insatiable pack of publicity hounds. Interestingly, all of the aforementioned supplements are in black and white, which stands in stark contrast to the final product. Image quality is good to excellent throughout, though "Paparazzi" looks like it was shot on short ends and has suffered a bit through the following decades. Moving on, we have a half-hour interview with the legendary cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who also lent his incomparable eye to Truffaut, Demy, and many other vanguards of the French New Wave. Then comes a five-minute demonstration of the ravages inflicted on Contempt through television cropping, with a mobile gray box passing over the image to reveal just how much information was lost from each shot. Perhaps a few enterprising clerks will use this feature in retail stores around the country to prove the evils of pan and scanning, once and for all. Finally comes the brilliant theatrical trailer, a mysterious and beautiful piece of work which has been imitated repeatedly since (most recently by The Rules of Attraction). If you've been scared off by Godard's reputation, this DVD is the perfect place to start; on the other hand, if you've only seen this film on television, prepare yourself for an entirely new experience.

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