TX If one image sums up the liberating attitude that permeated the French New Wave, it isn’t Jean Seberg tiptoeing down the Champs Elysees with Jean-Paul Belmondo in “Breathless” nor Jeanne Moreau frolicking with Oskar Werner and Henri Serre in “Jules and Jim.”
It is director and auteur supreme Jean-Luc Godard holding the handles of a wheelchair as his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, sits snugly in the seat lining up a shot during the making of “Alphaville.” Imagine any American d.p. in the ’60s permitting such poverty-stricken production conditions, and you get a sense, in Coutard’s world, of how much was made of so little.
Or, as French-trained American cinematographer Steve Larner terms the free- form New Wave attitude, “The d.p. was his own operator and focus puller, and maybe he had one assistant, if it could be afforded, and a grip, and that was it. Coutard, especially with Godard, took this situation and made it into an art form.”
The 1997 recipient of ASC’s Intl. Award, Coutard can now be viewed as one of the New Wave’s seminal figures, as well as a profoundly influential cameraman for a generation of Americans who grew up on the explosion of foreign films in the ’60s. From John Cassavetes’ films to John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy,” the Coutard style of visual immediacy, casual intimacy and street-level realism stemming from documentaries marked a sudden shift in the course of cinematography.
“Coutard is one of the unacknowledged masters, especially in this country,” says cinematographer John Bailey, a member of the ASC nominating committee which selected the Frenchman for this year’s honor. “He’s certainly not been acknowledged here for the magnitude of his collaboration with Godard, as, say, Gregg Toland has with Orson Welles. Yet, in both cases, the impact was enormous.”
For all of that, Coutard’s career was hardly a case of planning to storm the French film industry Bastille. Indeed, his entry into film was fairly accidental. By phone from his home outside of Paris, Coutard, born in 1924, describes how his first love was the still camera — “my father was an amateur photographer, and I became fascinated with it at age 15” — which then became his life.
Sent off in the army to Vietnam immediately at the end of World War II while colonial France still dominated the strife-torn country — and then just as quickly sent back home — Coutard soon returned to Vietnam as a combat photographer, witnessing grisly action in areas as remote as Laos and eventually staying on for a decade into the 1950s.
“I was fascinated with reportage and documenting life,” he says, “so I greatly admired the work of Ernst Haas, and the Magnum (photojournalist) Agency and its strong technical craft.” Finding that what seemed exotic about Asia soon became mundane, Coutard returned to Paris and “fell into cinema” at the invitation of documentarian Pierre Schoendoerffer, who convinced Coutard to shoot films in the anamorphic process in Afghanistan.
“If I had known what cinema-making was all about,” muses Coutard, “I wouldn’t have gotten into it. It was much more than photography — it was an endless series of technical challenges, needing to give continuity and unity to hundreds of separate shots.”
Ironically, the next filmmaker Coutard linked up with — Godard — could care less about continuity. This was just one of many contrasts between Godard and fellow New Waver and former Cahiers du Cinema comrade Francois Truffaut, with whom Coutard shot “Jules and Jim,” “Shoot the Piano Player,” “The Soft Skin” and “The Bride Wore Black.”
“Truffaut was much more interested in continuity than Godard,” Coutard asserts. “Though he started with New Wave-scale budgets, Truffaut had a more classical temperament, and really made films that were little different from Marcel Carne. Godard has written that while Truffaut made films, Godard makes cinema. Godard’s films aren’t about stories, and he’s never felt forced to deal with storytelling in a traditional sense.
“This is why I say that Godard is the only one of the New Wave filmmakers who was truly New Wave, who continues to search and experiment with each film,” Coutard says.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Coutard’s work is the elasticity of his approach. He could switch between the studied high-contrast blacks and whites of Truffaut’s early films to the even higher contrast images of Jacques Demy’s “Lola” to the two dominant looks of Godard’s films — on one end, the almost shadowless, seemingly natural-lit images in “Breathless” and “Les Carabiniers,” and the eye-popping Cinemascope color of the musical homage, “A Woman is a Woman” and the intimate epic “Contempt.”
Despite this remarkable range, it is what Larner calls “the New Wave look” that he says Coutard is responsible for: “He really helped develop soft, bounce lighting, combined with the urge to take the camera off the tripod. Because of the films’ tiny budgets, and being improvisational in nature, Coutard was the ideal cameraman because he works so fast. He knew his crew, because they were mostly his old army buddies. He believes in making order out of chaos, which I think also comes from his time in the military.”
While studying at Paris’ Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, Larner recalls, Coutard was “a man with strong opinions but easy to talk to, with a military bearing, very much in control of himself. He had, though, what the older d.p.s in France lacked — a willingness to experiment, to break the old rules.”
In his only essay that appears in English (translated in the winter 1965 issue of the British Sight and Sound magazine), Coutard describes this willingness in action, as he helped Godard transform still-camera film into usable movie-camera stock to shoot night shots for “Breathless”: “The perforations weren’t the same as for cinema cameras. Godard decided to stick together as many 17-1/2-meter reels as he would need to make up a reel of motion picture film, and to use the camera whose sprocket holes corresponded most closely with those of the Leica (camera) — luckily, the Camflex. The professionals were horrified.”
Looking back, Coutard says he “wasn’t aware of being in a film revolution, but we were aware that we weren’t being politically correct in terms of the French film establishment, because we were getting shit from a lot of people.”
Suggesting the obedient soldier, Coutard humbly says that “I am at the director’s service, always, and if it seems that I did many different things with Godard, for example, it is because of Godard.” For while hand-held shots might have been the assignment on one Godard project, long tracking shots requiring immense lighting preparation would be the job on another. This was precisely the case with “Weekend,” in which Larner was part of a crew that helped Coutard lay down more than 60 yards of camera track for the film’s long shot of a traffic jam — possibly the most notorious tracking shot in any ’60s film.
“It seems longer than 60 yards,” Larner notes, “but that’s because the camera moves so incredibly slow. Coutard took a whole day to set up that shot.”
Shortly after “Weekend,” Coutard worked with Costa-Gavras on “Z,” the first real international hit with which Coutard was involved. “Costa-Gavras didn’t like my early rushes,” he recalls, “because I had opted for an extremely realistic look that he hadn’t expected. But he eventually realized that it would serve the film best.” The collaboration lasted awhile, as Coutard lit Costa-Gavras’ follow-up to “Z,” “The Confession.”
Coutard vehemently denies a claim made by film writer Peter Harcourt that Godard and Coutard had a falling out over “Z” (Godard reportedly calling the film “falsely bourgeois”): “No, no. Godard never had a problem, and we worked together later on ‘Passion,’ after he got out of his phase making videos.”
Coutard, meanwhile, tried his hand at directing — first, “Hoa-Binh,” about children in Vietnam shot immediately after the 1968 Tet Offensive, and a few years later, two poorly received features, “La Legion Saute Sur Kolwezi” (about the French Foreign Legion in Zaire) and the thriller “S.A.S. a San Salvador.”
“I thought I did a pretty decent job on ‘Kolwezi,’ but the latter film I regret. I would like to direct again, but then I have to ask myself if I want to put myself through the pains of dealing with producers, casting and all those other headaches.”
Coutard seems to much prefer the headaches of challenging shoots, such as the maritime locations for Pierre Schoendoerffer’s brilliant 1977 film, “Le Crabe Tambour” (The Crab Drum), which Coutard calls one of the most difficult projects of his life. “It was near freezing every day, the ocean was never the same, and we were shooting on a ship during huge storms. As the French saying goes, ‘Vous touchez la mer, vous touchez la merde.’ ”
Contradicting all assumptions about him, Coutard denies that he is a cinephile — “I’m a regular moviegoer, I may not even notice the name of the cinematographer in the credits, maybe not even the director!”— and states his core principle about cinematography in disarmingly simple terms: “Cinematography is always a case of what you can do with the means available. You must remain flexible, for you never know what you’re going to be asked to do next.”