“Chekhov’s Gun” is a commonly-quoted dramatic principle underscoring the necessity of every element of a narrative story. If a gun is shown in the first act, it must be fired in the third. Elements that do not impact the story — unfired guns — should be removed entirely, so as not to make false promises or clutter the story with unnecessary details. Chekhov’s principle is intrinsically related to foreshadowing, and there are several ways to use it. You can use it well, giving your story the qualities of a fine-tuned machine. You can use it poorly, relying on it as a crutch such that your story loses its natural, organic feeling. Or you can use it like Jean-Luc Godard uses it in Contempt: as a massive fuck you to anyone who dares insist that dutifully following the rules is going to make your story better.
It’s more complicated than that, of course, but the handgun that appears in Contempt is indeed shown several times with great intention. It is never fired, nor is it brandished with the threat of being fired, nor is its owner really the type of man who would ever shoot anyone. That man is Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), a screenwriter working on a new adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey while contending with pressure from his American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) and navigating marital strife with his spouse Camille (Brigitte Bardot). After a mere glimpse at Paul we understand he is not the type of man to resort to violence, much as we understand after Contempt‘s opening shot that Godard is not the type of director who’d forget that he put a loaded gun in the hand of his hero.
“Protagonist”, actually, is far more accurate a descriptor than “hero” as far as Paul is concerned, and the distinction between the two is vital. The former — in both film language and the language of classical literature — is simply the main character of the story. Homeric heroes are a bit more specific: notably attractive, tall, skilled in warfare and in one-on-one combat, flush with talents gifted to them by the gods. Contempt‘s relationship with The Odyssey forces us to consider Paul as Ulysses, and his ownership of the gun clues us into the more significant fact that Paul likely views himself as such a Homeric ideal. He’s a far cry from it, though, ultimately destroying his own marriage in a feeble attempt at advancing his career.
In a more modern context, the film’s interrogation of the industry at the time could be viewed superficially as a put-down of the brash, gun-toting, histrionic heroes Hollywood studios were churning out on an assembly line. Sticking a gun in Paul’s hand might thereby seem to be a comment on the commercialization of cinema. But Godard didn’t hate Hollywood, and Contempt even lovingly references a handful of American films (like when Paul takes a bath with his hat on, trying to look like Dean Martin in Some Came Running). Godard did despise the idea of artistic vision being compromised by studio meddling, and so while Jerry Prokosch and Fritz Lang (who plays himself) fulfill certain fictional archetypes from The Odyssey, they’re also very true to life: Prokosch is the insistent producer, Lang the uncompromising artist. Godard, an admirer of Lang, seems likewise content in the meantime to stick to his own vision, even while his producers almost certainly threw Chekhov at him and urged him to have the gun go off.
Contempt has a sackful of influences besides The Odyssey, but two of the more obvious ones are a pair of films by Vincente Minnelli: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), both starring Kirk Douglas and both easily amongst the greatest films-about-films ever made. Both are lurid, widescreen spectacles of Hollywood, probably exactly the type of films that a power-hungry American producer like Jerry Prokosch would want Paul to write. Godard, too, was pressured by his producers to make Contempt into a similar experience; the primary instruction he received after principal photography was to show Brigitte Bardot naked, an instruction to which Godard ultimately acquiesced as literally as possible. So Paul’s gun still plays as a nod to the Hollywoodized version of Contempt, much like his hat-in-the-bathtub scene, referencing the melodrama that Godard loved but resisting the urge to exist wholly on that plane.
None of this is to say that Paul’s gun is not “necessary” to Contempt. Godard, in fact, is credited with the famous quote: “All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” And there is admittedly a considerable energy generated by our knowledge of Paul’s gun, despite it being hidden most of the time, because of the tantalizing possibility that it might just go off. The caged lion is maybe more interesting than the animal on the loose, if only for the sheer potential of the what-comes-next. A gun is not something the typical person comes across in everyday life, but it’s definitely something we come across in a typical movie (especially an American movie). We’re trained to become excited at the introduction of a movie weapon, and perhaps that’s exactly because of things like Chekhov’s Gun. We’re a rule-following society, after all, and the rules state simply that Paul’s gun must be fired.
Contempt understands that we’re also a society of feeling, though, a curious species capable of meeting a greater artistic challenge than most bullet-riddled shoot-’em-up flicks could ever muster. The opening credits of the film — which are arrestingly narrated by Godard, rather than written on the screen — addresses this idea of feeling and emotion over rules and structure in a quote from André Bazin. “‘The cinema… substitutes for our gaze at a world more in harmony with our desires’… Contempt is a story of that world.” Paul’s gun may never go off, but it’s crucial to the feeling of Contempt all the same.