Bordwell views art cinema as a “distinct mode of film practice” (Bordwell, 1979), arguing that despite the broadness and “various cultural contexts” surrounding this “mode”, there are unifying elements that we can identify to characterise art cinema. His 1979 essay primarily focuses upon the narrative and stylistic principles that, he argues, underpin art cinema as a “distinct mode” of practice. To explore Bordwell’s analysis I will be discussing Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Le Mepris.
Bordwell argues that art cinema “explicitly” places itself against the conventions of classical narrative cinema, “especially against the cause-effect linkage of events” (Bordwell, 1979, p. 95), and, in the case of Le Mepris, it can be argued Bordwell is correct in his assertions. Godard opts for an episodic structure, scenes are not driven by character motivation or desires, instead they act more as a presentation of the characters themselves, and the scenes flow from one to another, rather than being driven by character action. In the first scene after the title sequence, we see Paul and Camille at home in bed. Godard sows the seeds of the crux of the film: the breakdown of Paul and Camille’s marriage, from the very beginning, as Paul remarks, “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically’, “tragically” being the imperative choice of word here. This, seemingly, could be interpreted as conforming to narrative convention- Godard introduces us to our characters and begins to foreshadow the eventual demise of their relationship. However, as the film progresses, our focus on the deterioration of the couple’s marriage comes not from the perspective of character actions, but our character’s reactions to one another. We never, fully, understand why Camille stops loving Paul, the most detailed description she offers him is, “that’s life”. Godard attempts to frustrate the audience, in the ‘classical’ narrative we would explore the motivations behind the breakdown of their relationship, follow a sequence of events that leads us, as an audience, to empathise with one of the characters, whether it be Camille or Paul, or at the very least understand why they are where they are in their relationship. Yet, as Bordwell argues, art cinema is not interested in the why of the characters, instead, an emphasis is placed on “why is this story being told this way?” (Bordwell, 1979, p. 98). In the case of Le Mepris, perhaps Godard wants us to believe Camille in her assertation, “that’s life”. Perhaps the film’s rejection of cause-and-effect linkage is attempting to speak to the complexity of life, an attempt to embody the spirit of realism into the very structure of the film. Rather than reduce a marriage to ‘x causes y’, Godard presents us with these episodic scenes, points in the decline of this marriage, and presents them without the persuasive and corrupting nature of a character driven narrative. This speaks to the “dedramatiz[ing]” (Bordwell, 1987, p. 206) of cinema Marcel Martin argued was prevalent in contemporary cinema of the time- we as an audience are shown points within the marriage, some mundane (such as the extremely elongated apartment scene) and some more ‘dramatic’, such as the car crash which appears to take the lives of both Camille and Prokosch. Yet, even in this case, the way in which Godard films the sequence it remains understated, there are no egregious shots of gore or crushing metal, instead the crash takes place off screen. We are only witness to the aftermath, with a relatively ‘plain’ panning shot- nothing is hyper-stylised or exaggerated, thus we are presented with a ‘dedramatised’ sequence of events, a more ‘realistic’ portrayal of life. This also highlights the open-ended approach to narrative, as Bordwell argues this loosening of structure “appeal[s] to the plausible improbabilities of ‘real life’” (Bordwell, 1987, p. 207). We can accept such an abrupt and seemingly just a case of ‘bad luck’ ending for two of our central characters because the cause-and-effect linkage has been so greatly diminished throughout the film. The loose structure of art cinema enables this ‘chance happening’ to seem plausibly improbable- we as an audience do not feel cheated as throughout the film Godard has not adhered to a structure that would lead us to expect a tight and neatly wound ending. In truth, if the film had such an ending it would feel out of place, the episodic structure would suddenly feel jarred, as if someone had cut abruptly rather than allowing it to continue to flow organically.
This commitment to realism is further expressed within the characters themselves. As Bordwell argues, “art cinema relies upon psychological causation”, and psychologically complex characters, characters deeper than a singular want or desire. This is very apparent in Le Mepris, characters change almost entirely within short time frames; Camille goes from claiming to love Paul “entirely” to “try that again and I’ll divorce you” within the space of forty minutes. This alludes to a thought process we as an audience are not privy to, and Godard refuses to let us in. It creates a greater sense of ‘objective’ realism as people are changeable. This ambiguity is emblematic of the realist influences around Godard at the time, the likes of Bazin and his assertions that film should act as a “tracing of reality” (Sterritt, 1999, p. 6)- because in truth, in life, things are rarely black and white, people are not singularly motivated. Thus, any attempt by Paul to find a singular reason as to why Camille no longer loves him is flatly rejected. Godard is presenting to the audience a “tracing of reality” by doing so, the psychological causation Bordwell highlights is absolutely prevalent here- Camille is not motivated by singular actions of Paul or the other characters, even her kiss with Prokosch is rejected as her reason for leaving Paul, she is a psychologically complex character to the point at which not even she can understand her own reasoning, she just understands how she feels. She exists within the grey, rather the black and white which classical narrative structure tends to paint in. This approach completely contrasts with the classical narrative approach, we as an audience are naturally inclined, conditioned, to search for answers of why, these psychologically complex and nuanced characters Godard cultivates are a rejection of that method of viewing cinema. The characteristics of this “mode of film practice” seek to challenge such preconceptions, by employing these narrative principles Godard implores the audience to consider the author and the construction of the film just as much as the material content.
Additionally, Bordwell’s analyses of the characteristics of art cinema are not purely structural, he also discusses the stylistic principles of art cinema. One such being the use of stylistic signatures, and the recognition of the work of others. This is extremely prevalent in Le Mepris, throughout the film feels extremely conscious, the marks of the author are laid out bare to see, and to be acknowledged and appreciated. This is no more apparent than in the opening credits: a sequence of which we witness a scene being filmed, only for the camera to turn its focus directly onto us as the film begins. This, seemingly, is at odds with an ‘mode’ of cinema so informed by realism, yet Sterritt argues, “Godard welcomed a different kind of realism- the realism that grows from a cheerful acknowledgment that cinema is in fact cinema” (Sterritt, 1999, p. 6). This form of realism, this “cheerful acknowledgment”, this self-conscious style of filmmaking could, arguably, be the clashing of the “realistic aesthetic and an expressionist aesthetic” that Bordwell described as “hard to merge” (Bordwell, 1979, p. 98). These opening credits implore us as an audience to acknowledge the camera, in fact, it forces us to- Godard makes us aware of the maker, the narrator, the author of the film. We see an almost mirror image of how the scenes we are about to see are captured, and to have this as your opening plants this in the audience’s mind. Godard demands the author be recognised; his “intrusive narrator” is the epitome of an expressive individual. Which Bordwell describes as “essential” in reading and understanding art cinema, it is imperative we as an audience are aware this is the work of an author, an artist- and how else better to deliver that message than turn the camera on the audience? Consciously and loudly highlight that “cinema is in fact cinema”, a show, a spectacle. Godard then takes this one step further, he actually implants himself, and his peers, into the film. Godard plays the assistant director to Fritz Lang, who is played by himself- this acts as further acknowledgement of the author, the “expressive individual”.
Yet, this stylistic choice of presenting the author so plainly and centre screen is met with a commitment to a realist aesthetic. As Bordwell highlights there is a “verisimilitude of space”, art cinema adopts “location shooting [and] non-Hollywood lighting schemes”, both of which are very apparent in Le Mepris. This clash of realist and expressionist aesthetic divides art cinema as a distinct mode, “the art film’s ‘reality’ is multifaceted”, in the words of Bordwell- in the case of Le Mepris we have the clash of Fritz Lang playing himself, yet he is directing a fictional film within a film. This speaks to the self-conscious nature of art cinema, this “expressive realism” (Bordwell, 1987, p. 209), can be seen in the opening scene when Paul and Camille lie in bed. Godard lights the scene using non-Hollywood schemes, shadows are cast upon the actors faces at points evoking this realist aesthetic, yet we are extremely aware of the author as Godard uses colour filters throughout the scene- this the only time in the film he does this. This contrast of ‘realistic’ lighting with something as stylised as colour filters creates a stark contrast. The reality we are presented with is jarring, we as an audience are forced to consider why Godard uses these filters, just as much as we are considering the dialogue between our two main characters. It can be argued, thus, that this scene not only act as an introduction to our main characters, but our author as well- Godard places himself, vicariously through his stylistic choices, into the opening scene, blatantly establishing himself, and wielding his power, in front of the audience. The message is: “art film [must] be read as the work of an expressive individual” (Bordwell, 1979, p. 98).
In conclusion, in Le Mepris, in light of Bordwell’s analysis on the characteristics of art cinema can definitely be defined as such. Godard’s commitment of "expressive realism”, both through his stylistic creative choices in the film and the very narrative structure of the film fall in line with Bordwell’s arguments on how the mode of art cinema can be described. The prevalence of the author, Godard, within the film, both symbolically through his use of colour filters, an extremely self-conscious open credit sequence, and his ‘dedramatizing’ of key events, as well as his literal presence in the film as a fictional assistant director falls in line with Bordwell’s analysis of art cinema and its tendency to present “authorial commentary” (Bordwell, 1979, p. 98). This coupled with Godard’s aesthetic commitment to realism, and the loosening of classical narrative convention to create a film which is more episodic in nature and driven more so by chance than character action, would suggest that the film falls very much within the parameters Bordwell outlines for the mode.
Bordwell, D., 1979. THE ART CINEMA AS A MODE OF FILM PRACTICE. In: C. Fowler, ed. THE EUROPEAN CINEMA READER. s.l.:Routledge, pp. 94-102.
Bordwell, D., 1987. Narration in the Fiction Film. s.l.:Routledge.
Mulvey, L., 2012. Le Mepris (Jean-Luc Godard 1963) and its story of cinema: a 'fabric of quotations'. In: L. Mulvey & C. MacCabe, eds. Godard's Contempt: Essays from the London Consortium. London: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 225-237.
Paul, J., 2008. Homer and Cinema: Translation and Adaptation in Le Mepris. In: A. Lianeri & V. Zajko, eds. Translation & The Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 148-165.
Sterritt, D., 1999. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Le Mepris. 1963. [Film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France, Italy: Rome Paris Films, Les Films Concordia, Compagnia, Cinematografica, Champion.