Contempt and The Odyssey
Contempt is a film about the impossibility of The Odyssey to play out in modern times, when everything the Greeks had is gone. Ancient Greece was deposed by Ancient Rome. Similarly, the classic system of filmmaking in which Fritz Lang flourished has been replaced by a new system run by accountants and spoiled rich kids who can’t even tell Greece from Rome. Has classic Greek drama been replaced by Bread and Circuses for the uncultured masses? You might say that. In another parallel, the golden rectangle — the one based on the golden ratio, which appears again and again in nature; the rectangle that the Greeks asserted was the most pleasing one — has been replaced by 2.35:1 Cinemascope, which Fritz Lang says is “only good for snakes and funerals.” Yes, snakes and funerals are both things that are stretched out long, but might we also say that Jeremy, Mr. Cinemascope, is a snake and that his approach to movies is a kind of funeral for the old way? Yes, we might say that, too. (It’s telling that when we first see Jeremy, the widescreen frame moves to accomodate him and very nearly cuts off Francesca and Paul at the neck. Not meant for people; just for snakes. And funerals.) We might also say that the film is a funeral for Paul and Camille’s marriage, and for Ancient Greece.
But the big obstacle that prevents The Odyssey from playing out in modern times is that people themselves have changed. Jeremy might have been a snake in any era, just as Fritz Lang is noble in any era. But what Penelope was in The Odyssey, Camille is not. She is a narcissist. She cares only about herself. She takes the slightest excuse to let her relationship with Paul fall apart. And she jumps to Jeremy, in large part, to improve her standing in the world; from a marriage to a struggling writer in an apartment they can barely afford, to an exciting new relationship with a successful Hollywood producer who owns several lavish villas. Of course, Paul is no king like Ulysses, either. And when he and Jeremy try to apply modern ideas about marital dissatisfaction and infidelity into The Odyssey, the classic story falls apart.
The arc of The Odyssey, as Contempt sees it, is that Ulysses goes away on a trip, stays away from home much longer than expected, comes home to find his house and his wife beset by suitors, re-asserts his position as king, kills the suitors, and reunites with his wife. This story arc happens twice in Contempt, and each time, it fails to play out in the classical way. The first time, Paul lets Camille ride with Jeremy in his sports car while Paul himself takes a taxi. For whatever reason, Paul does not meet up with Camille and Jeremy again until much later than he was supposed to. Very clearly, Paul is Ulysses, Camille is Penelope, and Jeremy is all of the slimy suitors. Camille, being not as faithful as Penelope and a narcissist besides, falls victim to the seduction of Jeremy; whether sexually or merely emotionally, the film does not explicitly state. Paul, being not a king like Ulysses, does not assert himself with Jeremy, and certainly does not kill him, even in a metaphorical sense. Paul instead subjugates himself to Jeremy.
The second time The Odyssey plays out, Paul lets Camille go with Jeremy to his villa in Capri. Again, Paul intends to meet up with them later. If we believe that Jeremy’s theories about Ulysses apply to Paul, then Paul is tired of his wife, either consciously or subconsciously. When Paul comes back to the villa and finds that Camille has been unfaithful, he finally re-asserts himself as king. But he does not kill the suitors; he doesn’t have the power to kill Jeremy in a metaphorical way, and as for literally killing him, Paul cannot because he lives in a world that will not allow for that (and this world has shaped Paul’s ethics.)
Without the world of Ancient Greece to frame this modern Odyssey, the story falls apart. Ulysses loses Penelope to the suitors and becomes an ordinary man in his own kingdom.