As with the vast majority of Godard's work - particularly of this era - Le Mepris is very much a work in the meta-film tradition; in the sense that it is a film about film-making that is constantly reminding the audience of its own artificiality and manufactured design. This ideology is evident right from the start, as Godard begins the film with a lengthy tracking shot, which finds the camera following in front of a camera actually within the film and also in the middle of a similarly complicated tracking shot. To add further ideas of self-reflexivity to the proceedings, Godard appears himself as the film's assistant director, with his cinematographer Raoul Coutard manning the equipment. As the shot progresses, a cold and emotionless voice-over beings narrating the opening credits - though no text appears on screen - whilst the camera continues tracking towards us, edging closer to us until both camera and audience are starring directly into one other and the endless abyss that they represent.
It's pure Brechtian deconstruction, years before Godard would refine the influence of Brecht with the difficult masterpiece Week End (1967), which shares some elements familiar from Le Mepris, in particular the use of the couple as a metaphorical reference point for some kind of greater ideology and a natural continuation of many of the film-making techniques that Godard had been developing since A Woman Is A Woman (1961). This brings us to the story at hand, with Le Mepris focusing on a jaded scriptwriter (Michel Piccoli) setting out to polish the screenplay for Fritz Lang's big budget adaptation of Homer's epic, The Odyssey. From this set up we are introduced to the writer's beautiful and enchanting girlfriend (Brigitte Bardot), the arrogant U.S. film producer (Jack Palance), and the great man himself, Fritz Lang.
Each of these four characters will be involved in their own separate strand of the narrative that will run concurrently alongside the other characters, whilst in turn, laying reference points to the likes of Ulysses, The Odyssey, Fellini and The Rite of Spring, to create the overall foundation of the film itself. This is only the first quarter of the film and already Godard is churning out exciting idea after exciting idea to smash apart the worn clichés and generally accepted limitations of film in a way that is as startling, boring, joyous and confusing as anything else he has directed. The visual design is just splendid, with Godard and Coutard moving further away from the Nouvelle Vague/Cinéma-vérité influences of their earliest work and incorporating beautifully vivid primary colours, the use of cinema-scope, complex and seemingly random tracking shots and camera movements and sporadic bursts of music to disarm the viewer during moments of dialog.
The centrepiece here is the near-infamous twenty-minute long sequence that takes place between the writer and his girlfriend in their vast, open-plan apartment, in which jealousies, bitterness and petty arguments blow up and cool off amidst a series of seemingly mundane, everyday-like activities. What makes the scene work is Godard's far from invisible directorial intent, as he attempts to excite, bore and eventually move the audience into becoming interested in these complicated and far from conventional characters whilst simultaneously using the set up to offer a skillful deconstruction of his own film's narrative, the narrative of Homer's Odyssey, and the film that Lang is making. This ties into the further film-within-a-film-within-a-film (infinity) abstractions, with Godard continually making allusions to the idea that the film we are watching could easily be a film being made.
The film also works in a circular sense, opening with that aforementioned scene in which Godard points the barrel of the lens directly into the audience whilst narrating his own credits, whilst the final shots shows the camera drifting off towards the sunset as Godard yells "cut". With Le Mepris, Godard clearly struck the right balance of cinematic invention; beautiful photography, use of colour, costumes and music, a recreation of Cinecittà as a pastoral ghost town (a comment on film-making in itself), etc, whilst achieving a subtle symbiosis between his characters, his narrative and his philosophical subtext. For me, this is perhaps the strongest 'narrative' film the director ever made before abandoning generic storytelling and instead striving for greater artistic substance.
I suppose in this day and age it is easy to look back on Godard's once radical use of cinematic experimentation - and his genuine desire to challenge the medium of film far beyond the usual presentation of conventions like character and narrative - and see it as something that is hollow and dated; a pseudo-intellectual exercise in cinematic deconstruction that is there to be endured, as opposed to enjoyed. Though this may still be true for some viewers - particularly those at odds with Godard's personal style and the very 60's idea that art could be entertainment and that anything was possible - there will be other viewers who are far more in tune with the notion of cinema for cinema's sake, and can better appreciate the film for what it truly is.