Foreground, Background, Drama: The cinematic space of Le Mépris

fig 6b_2André Bazin once wrote about cinema that “[o]ur experience of space is the structural basis for our concept of the [cinematic] universe.”[1] Criticizing the contemporary cinema, he would further declare that acting itself loses all meaning if it lacks a “living and responsive connection”[2] with the space of the film, or the décor. Precisely this relationship between décor and character—or background and figure—bears tremendous effect on plot’s development and, more importantly, provides a degree of freedom to the audience to participate in it. In mainstream cinema, the cinematic space as a background to the unfolding drama almost always plays a role subordinate to the action and presence of the film’s central figures. In its most general sense, the scenic background provides a basic topography in which the central plot can take root and develop—a luminous surface which renders the precise texture and tension that the audience is supposed to read between characters. And much like the effect a soundtrack produces, the background often supports a singular reading of the film’s drama. Yet in many of Godard’s films, and quintessentially in his Le Mépris, he inverts this relationship, turning the background into a kind of formal device, which interacts with the drama of the film in a bizarre and unsettling way. As evidenced by Le Mépris, Godard’s use of filmic space—the background in relation to the characters—puts into question this very coherence that we expect to see between the space of the film and the consistency of action taking place within it.

[1]     Bazin, A., What is Cinema?, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967), p. 108.

[2]     Bazin, A., Orson Welles: A Critical View, (London, Elm Tree Books, 1978), p. 68.

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