American film producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) hires respected Austrian director Fritz Lang (playing himself) to direct a film adaptation of Homer's Odyssey. Dissatisfied with Lang's treatment of the material as an art film, Prokosch hires Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), a novelist and playwright, to rework the script. The conflict between artistic expression and commercial opportunity parallels Paul's sudden estrangement from his wife Camille Javal (Brigitte Bardot), who becomes aloof with Paul after being left alone with Prokosch, a millionaire playboy.
While founded on Alberto Moravia's story of the progressive estrangement between a husband and wife, Godard's version also contains deliberate parallels with aspects of his own life: while Paul, Camille, and Prokosch correspond to Ulysses, Penelope, and Poseidon, respectively, they also correspond in some ways with Godard, his wife Anna Karina (his choice of female lead), and Joseph E. Levine, the film's distributor. At one point, Bardot dons a black wig which gives her a resemblance to Karina. Michel Piccoli also bears some resemblance to Brigitte Bardot's ex-husband and Svengali, the filmmaker Roger Vadim.
Also notable in the film is a discussion of Dante — particularly Canto XXVI of Inferno, about Ulysses' last fatal voyage beyond the Pillars of Hercules to the other side of the world — and Friedrich Hölderlin's poem, "Dichterberuf" ("The Poet's Vocation").
Italian film producer Carlo Ponti approached Jean Luc Godard to discuss a possible collaboration; Godard suggested an adaptation of Moravia's novel Il disprezzo (originally translated into English with the title A Ghost at Noon) in which he saw Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra as the leads; they refused. Ponti suggested Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, whom Godard refused. Finally, Bardot was chosen, because of the producer's insistence that the profits might be increased by displaying her famously sensual body. This provided the film's opening scene, filmed by Godard as a typical mockery of the cinema business with tame nudity. The scene was shot after Godard considered the film finished, at the insistence of the American co-producers. In the film, Godard cast himself as Lang's assistant director, and characteristically has Lang expound many of Godard's New Wave theories and opinions. Godard also employed the two "forgotten" New Wave Filmmakers, Luc Moullet and Jacques Rozier, on the film. Bardot visibly reads a book about Fritz Lang that was written by Moullet, and Rozier made the documentary short about the making of the film, Le Parti Des Choses.
Contempt was filmed in and occurs entirely in Italy, with location shooting at the Cinecittà studios in Rome and the Casa Malaparte on Capri island. In a notable sequence, the characters played by Piccoli and Bardot wander through their apartment alternately arguing and reconciling. Godard filmed the scene as an extended series of tracking shots, in natural light and in near real-time.
The French, Italian and American theatrical releases differed significantly. The French release was multilingual (French, English, Italian and German), while the American and Italian releases were entirely dubbed into English and Italian, respectively. The French and American releases differ only slightly in editing, but the Italian version is significantly shorter (only 82 minutes) and, instead of George Delerue's original, haunting musical score, features a very different light jazz score written by Piero Piccioni.
Most DVD releases of the film now use the multilingual French release.
One of the most notable blurbs about the film: "Sight & Sound critic Colin MacCabe called Contempt "the greatest work of art produced in postwar Europe."