Dog's Dinner

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Hall of Mirrors

I recently watched two films about two couples coming apart and/or together, the colossal Le mepris (Contempt) by Godard and the recent Closer by Mike Nichols. I won't go into any kind of comparison since the similarity basically ends there. Closer, like Nichols' excellent Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is concerned primarily with the difficulties caused in relationships by neurosis; Contempt is part of a grand tradition of films that superimpose that theme on Schiller's theory of the Naive and the Sentimental in poetry, the Naive being epitomized by the ancient Greeks and their unselfconsciously ritualized harmony with Nature, also by such large-as-life figures as Shakespeare, Cervantes and Goethe, the Sentimental by Schiller himself with his sense of separation from the warp and woof of Creation.

The other films I have in mind are the earlier Viaggio en Italia (Rossellini, 1947/8?), itself referenced in Godard's film both directly (the two couples go to see it with the wise old resplendently monocled philospher Fritz Lang) and indirectly (they also watch some footage of Greco-Roman statues not unlike the footage of such statues in Viaggio, except in color), and Pasolini's marvelous Medea (1969), featuring a monologue by Chiron (beautifully played by the great French actor Laurent Terzieff) remarkably similar to Lang's Schillerian reverie.

It would be fun to be the manager of an old-school double-feature theater (do they still exist?) like the wonderful one my parents used to take me to in Dallas, and have to decide whether to show Contempt with its parent text or its sibling/child.

One could also, however, situate Contempt within a tropos of marital and sexual anxiety specific to the early-middle New Wave period, alongside Truffaut's La peau douce (The Soft Skin) and, more revealingly, Chabrol's Les bonnes femmes. Of course the symptoms of what Godard was later to condemn as bourgeois complacency are already evident in those two films, but the haunting image of dancing couples marks his and Chabrol's debt to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt and its disturbing critique of marriage and romance. Truffaut's film, on the other hand, shares with Godard's a nauseated shame at the weakness to which the intellectual man is reduced in his pursuit of a "Naive" relationship.

Speaking of Hitchcock, the whole idea of a couple watching their precarious union reflected in a broken mirror comes from Rear Window.

I propose that in place of the cryptic French term "mise-en-abyme," academic literary discourse should adopt the carnivalistic term "hall of mirrors."

Incidentally, the changes proposed by Jack Palance's vulgarian producer Prokosch (why exactly MUST all vulgarians in films have Eastern European names???) and at first accepted by Michel Piccoli's poetic Paul, i.e. that Odysseus and Penelope's marriage is broken (he wants to roam and not to come home, she has been unfaithful) are nowhere near as radical, i.e. as destructive, as, say, taking the Gods out of the Iliad or the infidelity out of the Arthurian Cycle. A different time, sigh.


At 9:10 PM, Blogger Small Man said...

You didn't mention the bizarre story about the origins of the film--as I remember it, Godard's real producer was just like the producer in the film, and a lot of it is about the actual circumstances of producing the film itself. I don't know how true that it is. On that theory, for instance, the long scene about Bardot's body at the beginning is a parody of the sex scene that Godard's philistine producer demanded he include.

"Hall of mirrors" recalls The Lady from Shanghai, which also has beautiful ocean footage and a miserable married couple for whom infidelity comes as a relief.

At 5:19 AM, Blogger Faith Williams said...

Did you see that article in Slate about running a film festival? Not too long ago. Something you would do uniquely I think.

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