There has never been a more perfect nickname for Old Hollywood than the Dream Factory. That’s because it doesn’t really matter what kind of movie you’re watching: It could be a champagne-fizz romance or an inky film noir, a Monument Valley Western or a vaudeville-on-happy-pills Marx Brothers comedy — whatever the genre, the silky saturated images seem to glow from within, like photographs painted on canvases of light.
Cut to Raoul Coutard. In 1959, he used a portable Caméflex Eclair 35mm camera and nothing but natural light to shoot “Breathless,” Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film, and it was arguably the most revolutionary moment in cinema since the dawn of cinema. With its heady, tossed-off insouciance, “Breathless” upended — in 10 different ways — the very concept of what a motion picture could be. At the heart of the change was its visual design — or, rather, the lack of design that became The New Design.
Other cinematographers hated it; they thought it looked ragged and amateurish. For a while, it was the film’s editing that drew all the attention. In one stroke, Godard had created the jump-cut, which became so woven into the grammar of film that it’s as if he’d invented the contraction. When you watch “Breathless” now, those cuts are dazzling, but what the mind’s eye remembers is the black-and-white images themselves: Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg sitting around that apartment, looking like a hoodlum and his pixie moll as casual Left Bank grad students; Belmondo stumbling down the street after being shot, the camera trailing after him as if the climax of a James Cagney movie had been turned into a piece of Direct Cinema by the Maysles Brothers. As a postmodern fantasia, “Breathless” drew on 40 years of the Dream Factory, but the message of the film’s images was: It’s time to wake up.
That was just act one in the game-changing aesthetic of Coutard, who died on Nov. 8 at 92. Working through most of the ’60s with Godard, he became, quite simply, the most radically visionary and influential cinematographer of the modern era, the one who smashed down the door and, indeed, the entire house, all to let in the glaring light of naturalism.
Before Coutard, the way movies looked made them reflections of our world — luscious, stylized, confectionary. After Coutard, they became our world. He dissolved the line between the screen and what was outside of it. When I think of a quintessential Godard moment from the ’60s, I flash on actors like Jean-Pierre Léaud or Anna Karina standing near a bathroom mirror or seated in the booth of a bar, and the whole magic of the scene is its texture of anti-glamour, the way it looks like a bar, like grainy caught reality, and the actors are like gods who’ve lost their wings. That was Godard’s inspiration: He took youthfully chic, desultory characters gabbing about Balzac and the end of capitalism and framed them in settings that looked like places you might have been sitting yesterday afternoon.
It was Coutard who made that vision luminescent; he made it beautiful. Those bars — and streets, and cramped Paris apartments — looked like places that had been left after the cinema as we knew it went off and died. They were post-cinema. The triumph of Coutard’s images is that he took that landscape of in-your-face realism and turned it back into cinema. The films he shot looked like documentaries, yet they shimmered and vibrated. He was the alchemist of realism, and everything about how movies would look and feel in the next era — the age of the New Hollywood, and the new French cinema that would rise up under the influence of Godard’s cinematic heir Jean Eustache (“The Mother and the Whore”) — can be traced back to Coutard’s innovations. The jagged hyper-glare of László Kovács, the lush naturalism of Vilmos Zsigmond, the saturated intensity of Gordon Willis: Raoul Coutard showed them the way.
I have, of course, barely scratched the surface of his achievements. There was the interpolation of past and present, newsreel and caprice, in “Jules and Jim,” one of several epochal films he shot for François Truffaut; the way his packed, sweaty images in “Z” helped Costa-Gavras invent the genre of the political thriller; and, in 1983, the shocking sensuality of his images for Godard’s “First Name: Carmen,” a movie that featured nudity poised somewhere between amateur porn and Botticelli.
And then there were the two Godard films he shot in the ’60s that were built around Coutardian cinematic coups worthy of a vérité Hitchcock or Spielberg. In “Alphaville” (1965), he and Godard created what is, in effect, the first dystopian thriller by using the surfaces of modern-day Paris — winding stairways, sterile offices, oversize computer banks — as the setting for a sci-fi noir nightmare. They took the present and, without changing it, turned it into the future, thereby making the statement that the future is already here. And then, of course, there is “Weekend” (1967), a movie I have never had much use for except for the thing about it that is most famous: the seven-minute-long tracking shot of a traffic jam along a tree-lined country road. It was a stroke of genius on Godard’s part (one of the last before he disappeared down a rabbit hole of Marxist deconstructionist obsession), and it’s the flow that Coutard gives it that lends it its meaning. For here is a stalled mechanical circus worthy of Bruegel, the camera lingering and observing and gliding by each car, as if to say: Who, amid this hapless crush, can be an individual? In Godard’s eyes, at this (misanthropic) stage in his career, maybe none of them were; in Coutard’s winking cinematographic glance, they all are. That’s what his images are about. They take in the icy, machine-tooled, post-human modern world, and they reveal grace.