Can love survive contempt?
Or, perhaps, does love depend on contempt?
Andrzej Żuławski's (1975) L'important c'est d'aimer ("The Most Important Thing is To Love", we'll call it "Love" for short) can be read as a commentary on and response to Jean-Luc Godard's (1963) Le mépris ("Contempt")—a commentary which holds up a funhouse mirror to Godard's film and inverts all its basic themes.
Although L'important c'est d'aimer is clearly a commentary on many French films, its special relationship to Contempt is signaled early on by its strikingly similar use of music. Not only are the scores of both films by the same composer, Georges Delerue, but the themes are strikingly similar, and used in very similar ways, i.e. sharply inserted over relatively mundane scenes between long stretches of unscored dialogue.
Additionally, there are further thematic overlaps: both films are stories of infidelity, in the entertainment world (theater; film), with a bizarre commentary on a famous earlier work thematically interwoven (Contempt: The Odyssey; Love: Richard III).
And both movies are about the relationship between love and contempt.
But the relationship between love and contempt is strangely reversed in the two movies.
In Contempt, a young(ish) writer allows / encourages his young and beautiful wife (Brigitte Bardot!) to spend time unchaperoned with his potential employer, the producer (Jack Palance!) of an exploitation film version of The Odyssey directed by Fritz Lang (Fritz Lang!). When he refuses to acknowledge he's done something morally suspect, Bardot describes herself as feeling only "contempt" toward him. Although it is never revealed what happened between Bardot and Palance during the initial incident, she eventually leaves her husband for Palance, her love having evaporated due to her contempt.
So: for Godard, contempt is the antithesis of love.
re: The Odyssey, Palance pushes on the writer his personal interpretation of Homer's epic, namely that Ulysses is in fact reluctant to return home and deliberately prolongs his voyage because he no longer loves his wife.
In L'important c'est d'aimer a young photographer / admirer becomes enthralled with an "aging" (well, thirty) actress. Her husband allows them unchaperoned situations together, wherein she makes sexual advances, but the photographer never takes advantage of them. Her husband at one point confronts the photographer, saying he's offended the man won't even fuck his wife, and that he "needs a reprieve" from his 6 years of waking up next to her.
In a crucial late scene, the actress and her husband meet at a cafe of personal significance in the history of their relationship. He says that she feels only pity for him and that this manifests as contempt. He tells her that despite his desire for a reprieve, he loves her, at which point she yells in tears that "I don't even know what that means." Throughout, there is implication that, despite his buffoonery, her husband has somehow supported her through emotionally difficult times, prevented from slipping into a career of prostitution, etc.
Later, the husband commits suicide, and finally the photographer commits to a physical relationship with the actress. In the final scene, the photographer is beaten violently by gangsters whom he owes money. The actress arrives at their home, discovering him beaten, bloody, and helpless on the floor, runs to embrace him, sobbing "I love you."
re: Richard III, as the famous scene between Richard and Lady Anne is rehearsed in the play within a film in Love, the director of the play asks the actress's actual husband to lay in the coffin while she speaks her lines. Later, the scene is recreated when her husband indeed lies dead and she seeks comfort in the "murderer" of her husband, the photographer.
"Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won!"
So, in both films, the woman feels contempt for her husband—in Contempt, this is why she leaves, in Love, this is why he leaves.
Godard's is a conservative view of marriage—the man fails to assert his protection / sexual ownership of his wife, consequently, she leaves him for one more forceful.
Żuławski's is a bizarre looking-glass version of the control relationship in marriage: by perceiving her man as weak, the actress gains strength herself, but correspondingly drives him to suicide. She replaces him with another whom, only once she sees in him a similarly pathetic and powerless position, is she able to assert that she loves. Here, pity breeds contempt breeds (for her) love. A position which kills her husband and traps the photographer into a twisted, self-sacrificial role.
Inverted also is what we see. In Godard's film, we never see the moments where indiscretion is possible, and this ambiguity is essential in order to understand the emotional tension between Bardot and her husband.
In Żuławski's film, we see all the chances for potential infidelity in excruciating detail, and also the failure of any consummation.
But this decision is crucially tied to the inversion of the message. For Godard's heroine, it is her husband's attitude which offends her; her actions are irrelevant for that dynamic. For Żuławski's heroine, it is her own behavior towards the men around her that drives their madness. This corruptive influence is all the more interesting precisely because her character is so compelling and sympathetic. What is unseen here are not the incidents of the current love triangle, but the 6 years of marriage prior to these events, defining these characters, but elided from what we, initiates into their surface but not their secrets (as is the photographer), are directly able to witness.
Żuławski shows Godard up as a fake progressive. The supposed cynicism of Contempt is unmasked as traditionalism against the strangely believable inverted chaos of Love's romantic entanglements. True cynicism is revealed in the movie's very title, an implicit answer to an implicit question.
Non, L'important c'est d'aimer.
L'important c'est d'aimer also happens to feature the greatest Klaus Kinski scene of all time. Kinski plays the actor protraying Richard III, and it's indeed a pleasure to see him deliver the "now" speech, and seduce Anne over her husband's coffin. On opening night, though, at a restaurant afterwards, the players receive the evening edition of the paper and read a scathing review. This is Kinski's reaction:
(The two lines essential to understand this scene. First, Kinski accuses the passing drunks of "touching his coat," asserting "Since I am a well-bred homosexual, I care a lot about my things." After the beating, he remarks to the women, "If you're as vulgar as he, it will be perfect." Before leaving with them. Awe inspiring.)