From Bergman’s Persona to Godard’s Contempt: The bare essentials of world cinema

Baradwaj Rangan

Dec,11 2017 15:09:14 IST

Editor’s note: This is the first (of many) pieces that noted film writer and critic Baradwaj Rangan will be writing for Firstpost in a weekly column. The column will explore world cinema in a more modern, more accessible way, and will be published every Monday. 

Since the purpose of this series is to show world cinema is not just about kneeling at the altar of High Art, and since we are trying to strip this kind of movie of high-toned mystique and hi-faulting mumbo-jumbo, we’ll begin with a couple of nude scenes."

The most stunning nude scene of all, in my book (or should I say, “in my movie”?) is the one in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, where the nurse taking care of the actress talks about a day on the beach with a girl who’d paddled over from another island — a newly found friend — when two boys came by.

A still from Persona. Image from Flickr.

“Then one of them, the more daring of the two, came up and squatted next to Katarina. Suddenly, I heard Katarina say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come over here?’ She took him by the hand, and helped him off with his jeans and shirt. Then, suddenly, he was on top of her. She guided him in with her hands on his behind...”

Bergman’s genius in this nude scene is that there’s no nudity at all. The nurse’s monologue is set at the beach, but the scene isn’t – it plays out inside a room, with the two women. The nurse recollects the erotic encounter, the actress listens. But to say there’s no nudity isn’t to say the scene isn’t erotic. You may find yourself reacting in a way you did, as a teenager, when you furtively turned to the pages you knew by heart in the Harold Robbins shelf at the local lending library – so explicit is the confession.

What makes the scene sexier is the strange preceding stretch, with the actress and the nurse on the... beach, wearing straw hats like the ones the nurse talks about in the monologue. (“We lay there sunbathing beside one another, completely naked, dozing now and then, putting suntan lotion on. We had those cheap straw hats on, you know?”) Wishful thinking? Don’t ask me. Ask, “an alternative feminist haven of inclusivity and joy,” who called the film “arguably the most wonderful lesbian-themed film of all time.”

The nude scene in Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (Contempt), on the other hand, is actually a nude scene. It’s a scene that features nudity, gratuitous female nudity  – there’s no reason for the woman (Brigitte Bardot) to be naked, and yet, there she is, in her birthday suit, while the man beside her (her on-screen husband) is clothed. The difference between this gratuitous nude scene and others is that Godard intended the gratuitousness. Does that make sense? Don’t ask me. Ask Godard himself.

A still from Contempt. Image from Flickr.

In an interview, when asked if he was forced to include the scene where “Miss Bardot is so pleased to shed her clothes,” he said, “Not ‘pleased’ at all. I thought she did it very tactfully.” He added, “I didn’t film it at first. Then the American producers said: The film’s beautiful, but not commercial.” They demanded a nude scene. (In our film culture, we’d probably call it an item number.) Godard agreed. “I still find there’s no point,” he shrugged. “That is, it doesn’t add anything to the story. But maybe it does. Look at the scene, shot first with a red filter, then no filter (a “white” filter, if you will), and then, a blue filter. Red. White. Blue. Is this Godard saying, “Well, if you Americans want this...”?

The contempt in the title seeps into the scene as well, for Godard also seems to be saying, “Well, if you want to make me objectify my heroine, I might as well go all the way.” And so he literally makes her an object, not so much as a woman as a thing made of feet, ankles, knees, thighs, a behind, breasts, nipples, shoulders, arms and a face. If Persona gave us a nude scene that made us imagine the nudity, Contempt gives us one that leaves nothing to the imagination and yet, is utterly unerotic.

So, this is the kind of thing we’ll talk about in this column. Sometimes, we’ll look at old films, sometimes at new films, sometimes at films from a nation we never knew was making such great films, sometimes at a theme, sometimes at credits sequences, sometimes at hero-introduction shots, and sometimes we’ll look at great scenes (like the nightclub scene with the sad, old clown playing a sad, old tune in La Dolce Vita) – but all the time, remembering that foreign films aren’t just these intimidating things meant for critics scurrying between films at Cannes and Venice, and they need to be liberated from the echo chamber that they’re so often trapped in.

So tune in every Monday. See you next week.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South) and Chief Consultant, Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star.

Published Date: Dec 11, 2017 15:09 PM | Updated Date: Dec 21, 2017 12:19 PM