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Contempt

Forced Choice

How does the nauseous manifest itself in Godard’s most nauseous film, Le Mepris – in this study of a man who wants to produce significant work but doesn’t want to lose the woman in his life? The film doesn’t only share similarities with Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of good or bad faith, no matter the philosopher’s genius for examining such a state in Nausea and elsewhere, a state of being where concreteness dissolves, evident in the narrator’s comments early in the book. “These young people amaze me; drinking their coffee, they tell clear, plausible stories. If you ask them what they did yesterday, they don’t get flustered; they tell you about it in a few words. If I were in their place I’d start stammering.” But the film seems equally close to Gilles Deleuze’s notion of forced choice. In Dialogues 2 Deleuze talks in the context of two things. First of all the card game ‘forced choice’: “where you want to make someone choose, for example, the king of hearts. You say first of all: ‘Do you prefer red or black?’ If he answers ‘red’ you withdraw the black cards from the table; if he replies ‘black’ you take the red cards and again you withdraw them. You have only to continue: ‘Do you prefer hearts or diamonds?’ Until ‘Do you prefer the king or queen of hearts?’ The binary machine works in this way, even when the interviewer is a person of good will. The point is the machine goes beyond us and serves other ends.” Deleuze goes on to say that psychoanalysis is exemplary in this respect. What it does is often interpret the patient’s language in a subtly different way to ‘read’ the real meaning of the utterance, so that, say, “a depressed patient speaks of his memories of the Resistance and of a chief of the network called Rene. The psychoanalyst says, ‘Let us keep Rene.’ Re-ne [reborn] is no longer Resistance. And renaissance is it Francois I or the mother’s womb? Let us keep ‘mother’.” The psychoanalyst may claim to ‘read’ the patient’s mind, but is he not forcing the patient into ever more constraining positions?

However, can we not also apply forced choice from within a notion of good and bad faith, where one’s feeling of nausea comes from noticing the forced choice of Deleuze’s idea of the ‘binary machine’? This isn’t about forced choice so much from the position of psychoanalytic expectation, but more from a psychology within oneself – a psychology which only allows one to see two options. This is nausea not as undifferentiated mass, but as limited possibilities. In Le Mepris (Contempt) the nausea comes from this sense that Paul Javal has only two choices in his life, and each one seems forced upon him. The first, to keep his wife, is of course in essence an issue of the body and of desire, a point Godard explores with the tinted sequence of Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) at the beginning of the film. Obviously Paul could sacrifice his wife to his work, could decide that there’s something in the work more significant than being with his spouse, but this sequence sets up well the impossible desire that will make him feel as if being with Camille is not a choice but an absolute necessity. As he waxes lyrical about her body parts, he is simultaneously wondrously happy and aware of a deeper despair.  ‘Do you love me?’ she asks. ‘Totally, tenderly, tragically,’ he insists.  He will of course do anything for his beautiful wife, but what he can’t do is do incompatible things for her. He can’t not kow-tow to his bullying producer Prokosch (Jack Palance), and at the same time pay off the apartment in which he and Camille live. Everything he does, he does for her, but this need to cater to his wife’s needs and his producer’s whims creates the very schism in him that finally seems to be the reason why his wife can no longer love him. When she kisses Prokosch late in the film, and looks like she’ll take off to Rome with him, we shouldn’t see this as Camille falling in love with another man, but instead virulently, contemptuously falling out of love with Paul.

Paul wonders at what point Camille fell out of love with him, and the film offers no answer but provides many clues. Maybe it’s the moment when Paul insists that Camille takes the passenger seat in Prokosch’s little convertible sports car whilst he and Prokosch’s secretary walk. But even if that’s so, does Camille fall out of love because it looks as though Paul’s prostituting Camille to Prokosch, with Paul well aware that Prokosch finds his wife beautiful, or is it because Camille thinks Paul wants to be alone with the secretary?  Paul would seem to prefer it be the latter; though it is probably the former. Would it not be easier for Paul to believe that it was out of jealousy that Camille started to despise him; rather than out of Camille feeling prostituted? But then again it is as though there is something in Godard’s very images, and Godard’s use of Georges Delerue’s music, that hints at the inevitability of the marriage’s demise. With wide-screen camerawork that moves as if in portentous slow motion through the degradation of the affair, and Delerue’s music melancholically melodramatic yet before the event, Godard achieves the very fatalism that is of course central to the film’s theme.

For Godard is here both drawing upon and diegetically offering up a contemporary study of The Odyssey, and thus Godard’s film is simultaneously existentially exploratory, as we’ve suggested at the beginning of this essay by invoking Sartre, whilst at the same time aware of the possibilities of a more fatalistic take on being. How to reconcile these two apparently completely contradictory approaches? Perhaps by seeing them not as antithetical, but as merely stages of being that overlap – that to some degree Greek tragedy is existential, and to some degree contemporary life is fatalistic. In one scene Paul tells the story of how maybe he has been too prudent towards his wife, too willing to let Prokosch ingratiate himself with her, as though accepting his fate. Yet he also explains how Odysseus returned to Crete and slayed all Penelope’s possible suitors. Though man may have been constrained cosmically by the Gods, was he not existentially capable of decisive deeds contemporary man – caught between the neurosis of doing nothing, and the perceived psychosis of violent action – is incapable of? Where Odysseus was limited by the wider cosmos, the actions of which he was capable were decisively offered. Paul, with no cosmic constraints, nevertheless seems more obviously limited in his actions. As Godard conspicuously pans between Paul and Camille at the dinner table, rather than offering a shot/counter-shot, during a lengthy, lazy and indecisive afternoon in their flat, he illustrates the impossibility of contemporary life where nauseous constraint can seem so much more oppressive than the demands of the Gods. For at least the constraints of the Gods are cosmic, and thus leave man to act within the tangible world, occasionally interfering with a task to be fulfilled. But with the existential every gesture, every word, every action carries within it a multitude of possibilities.

In Godard’s Two or Three Things I know About Her, the director’s voice-over mused, why show a tree over a character. What is there that makes necessary one shot over another shot? Now in a cinema of movement, a cinema of conventional narrative, the necessity comes from the through-line, from the belief that the character has tasks to perform and takes the path of least resistance to achieve them. There’s an Aristotelian plot logic that demands obligatory scenes because the narrative doesn’t create psychic amplitude, but narrative expectation. “Thus well-constructed plots”, Aristotle insists, “must neither begin nor end in a haphazard way, but must conform to the pattern I have been describing.” But as Gilberto Perez suggests in The Material Ghost, Henry James, for one, countered Aristotelian plot logic. For Aristotle narrative ought ‘to be constructed on dramatic principles”, but rather than “the unity of a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It will thus resemble a living organism in all its unity, and produce the pleasure proper to it,” James wanted to replace the unity of a single action with the unity of the single consciousness. As Perez describes it, “ the unity proper to narrative was for James not the unity of what happened but the unity of the perception, the consciousness of what happened, the point of view from which it is recounted.” But Godard moves beyond Aristotle and beyond James to the sort of arbitrary perspective where we do not have the narrative unity, nor a unity of character perception, but the existential nausea of the filmmaker who could choose one shot or another because he is not controlled by narrative or characterisation. The centre cannot hold.

In Godard’s work then there is no unity of narrative, nor unity of point of view, but instead a shifting register of subjectivities between filmmaker and character that leaves no unity possible. Thus rather than offering up a film of unity, Godard moves towards registering the fractured nature of reality, and a fractured reality fractured partially because neither the Gods (as proposed in Homerian legend) nor man can any longer claim a unifying principle, just as Paul creates a false forced choice (to stay with Camille or pursue his own writing), so Godard’s films seems to offer manifold nauseousness: the choices seem aesthetically infinite.

What is central to this twofold inertia in Godard’s film is not the potential freedom this offers, but the neurotic constraints man then applies to himself and Godard constantly fights with and questions. For the neurotic, nauseous existential figure’s choice isn’t necessarily a freedom, but much more a curious constraint, an internalized constraint in Paul’s case that insists he must hold onto his wife, must do the work that Prokosch demands, and accepts the way Prokosch demands he does it. However, he gives these elements to his life a fatalism equivalent to the constraints of the Gods, but of course the constraints are much more internalised than the external, even cosmic constraints of these deities. And is it not these constraints, in their very puniness, their internally neurotic dimension, that suggest modern man is even more constrained in his apparent freedom than he ever was when he could act with relative certitude, however dwarfed in earlier times by fate? Now when Deleuze talks about forced choice, there is the notion of psychoanalysis with the psychoanalyst as puppeteer; but for many this still might be better than the neurotic choices one forces upon oneself. It is a way of abdicating responsibility and perhaps allowing one to decide on the back of the psychoanalyst’s interpretation. It is not quite the decision of the Gods, but it is still a bigger decision than the individual’s.

But is this bad faith? Is it bad faith to assume a position of external responsibility for one’s actions, to believe in a higher being spiritually, or a moderately higher being – à la psychoanalysis – secularly? In a passage in Existentialism and Humanism, Sartre insists: “there is no reality except in action. There are always those who say, circumstances have been against me, I was worthy to be something much better than I have been. I admit I have never had a great love or a great friendship; but that is because I never met a man or a woman who were worthy of it; I have not written any very good books, it is because I had not the leisure to do so…etc.” Sartre goes on to say “what we mean to say is that a man is no other than a series of undertakings, that he is the sum, the organisation, the set of relations that constitute these undertakings.” But would Sartre accuse Odysseus of bad faith when Odysseus says, “far from planning to come here, we meant to sail straight home; but we lost our bearings, as Zeus, I suppose, intended that we should?” Certainly Odysseus is a man of action, but these actions are not always as self-defined as Sartre would demand. Can we not often say the man of action is also frequently a man of belief, whether that be in God, in capitalism, in love? Is there not something bigger than the immediate action that contains the action, and is this not what is generally missing from a nauseous state, from a state of phenomenological indecision? Whilst Sartre removes from man’s problematic God, he perhaps too readily replaces it with self-definition. As Sartre defines atheistic existentialism, he says “that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it…We mean that man first of all encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards…He will not be anything until later, and then he will  be what he makes of himself.”

But if man must accept that he is without essence, how is he to choose how to make himself – what basis can he work from to justify his actions? If the religious man can find his purpose in the presence of God, and Odysseus in the presence of the gods, then how does atheistic man decide to live? We can perhaps put to one side Sartre’s insistence that good faith lies in action, and instead suggest that a notion of good faith lies in the actually possible rather the virtually multiply possible, and that the moment we act we know we eradicate all the other virtual possibilities for the one action. Now the procrastinator wants to keep in mind all the possible actions instead of acting, and thus refuses to commit to an action not necessarily because he is afraid to act, but because his sense of self needs the incompatible, needs to believe in the mutually incompatible as compatible. To some degree this is what happens to Paul in Le mepris.  His wife obviously wants a man who can earn a reasonable living, and Paul wants to see himself as someone who writes plays. If he writes the script for Prokosch then he will be able to pay off the apartment in which he and Camille live, and he can focus more on playwrighting. But in writing the script for Prokosch to support his wife’s lifestyle, he must kowtow to Prokosch in such a way that his wife loses all respect for him. What Paul desires is a life as a playwright with Camille; what he finds himself moving towards is a life as a hack scriptwriter with a spouse sliding towards an affair with the man who disrespects him. So when Paul talks about wishing he were living in a less prudential age, it is with an awareness that man’s procrastination can leave him ontologically bereft. That is, it leaves him not moving towards essence, as Sartre expects, but towards, much more, inessence.

But action needn’t be the only way towards essence, and here we can differentiate between two non-actions. The first lies in the procrastination mentioned above, and the second lies in an amplification of the non-action, in the good-faith of the non-action. Often what happens in the first form is that non-action is solipsistic and neurotic. This is the sort of resentful egotism Sartre touches upon when talking about circumstances being against one. However, there is also the non-action of the perception, so that the non-actor doesn’t not-act his ego, but sets to work his perceptual faculties. If Paul could see more readily the possibilities in perception, instead of feeling the procrastination of non-action in the face of binary choice, then he might have moved towards understanding his wife, the demands put upon him by the producer, and how his ‘essential’ playwrighting self could evolve. So where we could say on the one hand forced choice – be that a belief in God, the gods, or psychoanalysis – can lead to action; an internalised forced choice can lead to inertia. It is this that really seems to happen to Paul. But this shouldn’t negate the possibility of a greater freedom based on a certain mode of self-definition. This is a type of self-definition that doesn’t lie in the act of acting but the act of thinking. But what happens to Paul here is that the non-acting also results in non-thinking, that procrastination isn’t just non-action, it is also so often non-thought, because the self hypothesises the possibilities of acting rather than the constant process of observation. This may partly be why Paul believes Camille is annoyed because he’s flirted with Prokosch’s secretary, when it seems much more likely she is irritated because she feels Paul has on some level prostituted her to the producer. He hasn’t thought the situation through.

Without a particular respect for, or awareness of, this amplified existentialism, a form of being that incorporates not procrastination but amplification in non-action, we can see why Paul is caught in a forced choice, and why he would be so envious of Odysseus living in what he sees as less prudent times. In a tradition that is so respectful of extension, a tradition that incorporates Homer and Sartre, then prudency has little place, and one envies a lack of freedom that is without doubt. Sure, Sartre would acknowledge the importance of subjectivity, and talks of the necessity of an inter-subjective acceptance of being when he says “the other is indisputable to my existence, and equally so to any knowledge I can have of myself”, but this still seems far removed from the type of will-driven, observational subjectivity put forth by certain Stoics, as Bertrand Russell  suggests in The History of Western Philosophy, where virtue resides in the will, where everything really good or bad in a man’s life rests entirely with the individual. But this is something Russell can’t quite understand and goes on to resemble Sartre when saying, “to a modern mind, it is difficult to feel enthusiastic about a virtuous life if nothing is going to be achieved by it.” This form of stoicism can lead in the direction of a negation of life, where no matter the atrocities that surround man, a basic state is preserved. Yet we might think of Seneca’s observation, “rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” This may suggest that man has merely moved from being a slave to man to become a slave to eternity, but just as we can see there is a hopefulness within non-action, so we could see there’s a hopefulness within the stoical. This is a stoicism put forth by Epictetus and that Michel Foucault talks about in an interview, on ‘The Genealogy of Ethics’, when he mentions the notion of epimeleia heatou, which means concerned with, perhaps even fascinated by, not necessarily oneself, but what concerns the self. Foucault goes on to say that for the Stoics, including most especially Epictetus, “the true self is defined only by what I can be master of.” So where Sartre believes essence lies in the act of doing, for the Stoics it rests much more in the process of being.

There is something in Paul however that bases itself on non-mastery, on a kind of non-responsibility, so that the forced choice resembles the fatalistic because it resembles an impossible paradox. To keep his wife happy, he must keep his producer happy. To keep his producer happy he must allow him to flirt and possibly seduce his wife. To allow him to flirt and seduce his wife makes Paul’s wife contemptible of Paul. By the end of the film, the car crash that kills both Prokosch and Camille plays like a sleight of hand that releases Paul from his impossible choice, as though the gods have intervened and removed from his existence the forced decision. But we might then ask will the contempt move from Camille’s feelings towards Paul, to Paul’s feelings about himself? After all, the procrastinating non-doer has also shown that this absolutely essential moment in Paul’s life, the moment that releases him completely from his forced choice, has nothing to do with his own thoughts, nor his own actions.

This is the film’s irrevocable logic at work,  with Paul released from his wife’s contempt and his producer’s demands not through his own mental realisations, nor an actual action, but instead by an act completely outwith his own powers, be they internal or external.  Does Paul not prove the antithesis of Epictetus’s idea that the true self is defined only by what he can be master of, and thus the contempt that befalls him at the end of the film stems from his inability to be master of anything? Instead of moving towards amplified choice, Paul moves towards forced choice, and then is released from his forced choice by an act completely beyond his own existential actions, even his own thoughts.

Here, though, we can see how Godard brilliantly shades nausea into contempt without falling necessarily into the contempt himself. Godard creates an aesthetic form that constantly calls into question the narrow psychology of its character for a more evolved aesthetic sense of self. When Foucault questioned Sartre’s existential formula, he did so by suggesting that though Sartre avoided the idea of self as given, he nevertheless boomeranged back to givens by implying a moral significance to authenticity. Foucault believes however that we should get rid of the idea of a categorical notion of authenticity and instead that the practical consequence of this is: “we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” Now where Sartre has written on Baudelaire, Flaubert and others from the point of view of it relating to the author, and the author to himself, and the degree of authenticity or inauthenticity this involves, Foucault is interested in the opposite. “We should not have to refer the creative activity of somebody to the kind of relation he has to himself, but should relate the kind of relation one has to oneself to a creative activity.” (Ethics)

Thus what is interesting about Le Mepris is that the creative aspect has essentially been filmic whilst the characterisations have been relatively static. That is, the characters’ crises have been less radically realised than the filmic technique. Certainly Pasolini, Deleuze and others have wondered whether neurotic characters have demanded a new forms or whether new forms have demanded neurotic characters, but we might sense that in many films of the period, in Before the Revolution, in La Dolce Vita, in La Notte, the neurotic is usually a trapped conservative looking for a way out of an impasse, whilst the technique itself is much more radical. It is this simultaneous characterisational conservatism linked to a formal radicalism that makes Godard’s work so significant. If Paul envies Odysseus’s lack of prudence and the carapacing of the gods, Godard is much more interested in utilising the gods as both aesthetic objects – evident in the numerous Greek statues – and as optional modes of being, present in Paul’s comment about Odysseus’s curious freedom. But Paul’s essentially reactionary remarks resemble the comment he makes when saying he hates modern cinema and that it should return to the days of Chaplin and Griffith. As Paul offers this comment, however, there is nothing in Godard’s technique that agrees with it: he offers us a medium long shot that tracks left as Paul, his wife, Prokosch and the assistant walk through Prokosch’s garden, and then steadily moves in on Prokosch as he delivers a statement that ostensibly has nothing to do with Paul’s earlier one: “The wise man does not oppress others with his superiority, he does not try to humiliate them for their impotence…” Not only does this statement – read from Prokosch’s tiny red book of aphorisms – have nothing to do with Paul’s, neither does it have anything to do with Prokosch’s usually humiliating behaviour of others. If in mainstream cinema the camera usually follows the actions of the characters and proves consistent with their behavioural codes, in the cinema that Godard is moving towards the coordinates are no longer in place and a new aesthetic evolves.

Going back to Foucault’s comments, what matters isn’t the authenticity of the work in relation to author, or the verisimilitude of the characterisation, but that the works produced contain an aspect of being not yet evolved, not yet present in the general world, but possible within it. On one level this is obviously inauthentic, in that it can’t be pinned down to notions of verisimilitude in relation to the artwork or the author’s life, but pushes life forward through art, so that art isn’t playing catch-me-up with life, but that life plays catch-me-up with art. Just as Bernardo Bertolucci around the same time didn’t want to identify too readily with Fabrizio’s political crisis in Before the Revolution, and would find a probing, slightly antithetical form in which to counter it, so Godard finally wants to offer a film much broader than the binary crisis of choice Paul sees in his own life. If it is true that Godard, Bertolucci and others filmmakers of the sixties wanted to make nausea felt, it was also the case they wanted to suggest an aesthetic beyond nausea’s limitations. The characters themselves may be caught in nauseous states, but the aesthetic often indicates a progressive aspect, a move through the impasse the characters themselves cannot go beyond. This doesn’t, of course, have anything to do with insight or irony – it has nothing to do with the director possessing answers to which his characters are blind. It is more that the director works with the variables as subjunctives, as possible modes and options.

And yet can we in our own lives not work much more with the modes and options? Can we not create a great deal of our essence not in action but in amplification, not in bad faith, but in good faith, and is this not what the artist so often achieves? It is the case that Sartre defines the finished artwork as the only sign of achievement. …there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art. The genius of Proust is the totality of the works of Proust; the genius of Racine is the series of his tragedies, outside of which there is nothing.” (Existentialism and Humanism) But what is interesting is that Sartre talks of genius on the one hand; the material object on the other. What doesn’t seem to interest the philosopher is the more intangible; the sort of intangibility Epicurus offered when saying: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.” In opinion you can set out to offer the work that might become a masterpiece; but in nature you might choose nothing more than to devote yourself to walking, swimming, talking, eating well. It is this wider perspective that Godard’s film offers. Certainly it is a technical accomplishment, but it is a technical accomplishment suggestive of something wider than either the artwork or the dilemmas therein contained. When Sartre talks about existentialism and humanism, you still feel the necessity of man’s need to act on the world; in Godard’s film you sense instead the inertia of a man of ambition versus the beauty of nature. After Paul has offered his comment on Chaplin and Griffith, and Prokosch his aphorism, the characters walk towards the gate, but Godard’s camera retreats behind nature, as we see the characters in the distance from behind the trees. What matters here is neither the good faith of the artist who works, nor the bad faith of the artist who doesn’t, but a state somewhere in between, a state closer to the wondrous indifference of nature. Hence when Foucault mentions Epicurus, what matters is not one’s own goals, but a “general knowledge of what is the world, of what is the necessity of the world, the relation between world, necessity, and the Gods.”

We can perhaps now see how Godard’s camera and Delerue’s music refuse to be at one with the crisis in front of us, because the crisis is too readily existential, and Godard is much more interested in an amplified existentialism we touched upon earlier, one that incorporates the possibility of action, thought and nature. Just as we have mused over how Bertolucci, Godard and others have wondered how to make nausea felt; we could say Godard is also asking himself here how can existentialism be contained, contained within a world that also accepts the possibility of the Gods and the permeating possibilities of nature. This is less existential than Epicurean, taking into account the quote above. Now this is not to suggest at all that Godard wants to return to the Greeks the way Paul wants to return to Griffith and Chaplin – that would defy the point. No, it is much more that Godard wants to show many more options available than the forced choice Paul believes in.

We could say Godard’s film is a work of possible contempt that contains his own forced choice and answers it wonderfully. Given stars in the form of Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot, and a big budget courtesy of producer Carlo Ponti, Godard doesn’t make a Europudding sell-out, but constantly questions the nature of selling out, of working on a film that hovers between art and commerce. If Pasolini is correct when saying in his essay the Cinema of Poetry that free indirect subjectivity concerns “this insistence on particulars, especially on certain details of the digressions, is a deviation in relation to the method of the film: it is the temptation to make another film. It is, in short, the presence of the author, who transcends his film in an abnormal freedom …a moment of barefaced subjectivity,” then Godard offers this free indirect subjectivity by illustrating a forced choice diegetically but a liberation non-diegetically. If for Bertolucci in Before the Revolution Pasolini’s comment is relevant as a way of escaping the bad faith of a character that acts politically to eschew nausea, and then conforms by the end of the film, for Godard it is a way of showing amplitude beyond the character’s procrastination. By making a subjunctive film about the making of a movie, Godard keeps the work in a state of flux, and contains his character’s behaviour whilst also showing options that aren’t just those of failed existentialism, but that incorporate stoical notions liberatingly and fascinatingly updated. Indeed it is as if Godard has brilliantly combined stoical possibilities in the subjunctive, with Pasolini’s notion of monstrous subjectivity, to avoid being forced into the categorical choices narrative cinema makes inevitable. Prokosch and Camille may die in a car crash, but this is merely the diegetic ending; the cinematic lies in a shot out to the sea; a marvellous indifference to event, yet not at all unsympathetic to it.

©Tony McKibbin