I was fortunate to interview Raoul at length on several occasions. The text below is adapted from some of my writings about him.
Raoul Coutard was born in 1924 and died in 2016. He received the ASC’s International Award in 1997.
Raoul Coutard was a revolutionary. More than any other cinematographer, Coutard (pronounced ‘coo-tar’) embodied the cinematic revolution of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) that shook the French film world in the 1960s.
The Nouvelle Vague meant above all a newfound freedom of expression, and a different more spontaneous image on the screen. Nouvelle Vague films were like a breath of fresh air, a personal brand of filmmaking that heralded the cultural revolution of the 1960s. These films were often shot on location with small crews, without money or established stars. In his collaborations with Godard, Truffaut and others on landmark films like Breathless, Jules and Jim and Contempt Raoul Coutard helped to define a new cinematographic style for this watershed film movement.
In the French film industry Coutard was sometimes referred to as a soldier, in allusion to his tour of duty in Indochina. The cinematographer was known to confound directors by quoting Clausewitz’ treatise On War on the set: “when an operation has been decided, it must be executed”. Indeed, there was something about Coutard’s manner and bearing that evoked a soldier. Tall, tough and confident he looked like he might have seen some action, he spoke with military bluntness, and was not above using a cuss word.
Raoul Coutard was born in Paris, and lived through the German occupation during the second world war. He turned twenty when the war ended in 1945 and felt the need for adventure. “When you’re twenty, Coutard recalled, you’re ready to die for a cause, any cause.” In this spirit the young man enlisted in the French army, and signed up to fight against the Japanese on the Pacific front. He ended up spending eleven years in the French colony that became Vietnam, the first few years in the army, then as a press reporter and photographer.
When he first arrived in Saigon, Coutard had a desk job. He requested active duty, and was affected for eleven months to a small commando unit doing guerrilla-style operations in parts of Laos so remote that “twice we ended in places where they had never seen white people before”.
Although Coutard was always reluctant to give details of his war experiences, it’s clear that it was a formative time for him.
“I don’t really like to talk about it. Yes, war is a nightmare, but war is also a great revealer. You’re pushed beyond your capacities, and you can see people for what they really are. Friendships in war are for real. If someone falls in an ambush, are you going to go get him or not? Is he going to get you out if you’re in trouble?”
After the army, Coutard stayed on in Vietnam and worked as a photo-journalist. He was influenced by the memorable work of the news photographers from the Magnum agency, including the great Ernst Haas. Coutard met Haas during the latter’s visit to Saigon. Haas wanted to photograph an opium den, and Coutard took him to visit one. Coutard asked Haas how he could possibly get an image in the dim candle-lit penumbra. Haas answered “as long as one thing is detached from another, you can always shoot a photograph”, a piece of wisdom that helped Coutard with his location work many years later.
In his early thirties Coutard decided that he had “to end the Asian dream, and go on to something new”. He returned to France, worked for the press taking “awful pictures” and shooting romans-photos (“photo novels”) a unique French form of comic strips using a series of photographs instead of drawings to tell melodramatic stories. Coutard explains that this work was “a little like film since it involved découpage [breaking down shots in a scene] and match cutting”.
Although Coutard’s ambition was to become a photo-journalist, he ended up working as a cameraman on feature documentaries directed by an old friend from Vietnam, Pierre Schoendoerffer. Coutard mastered Eclair’s Cameflex 35 millimeter camera. Although very noisy, the Cameflex was a superb hand-held camera, and Coutard used it notably to shoot an anamorphic documentary in Afghanistan. Coutard’s big break came when the producer of his documentaries, the legendary Georges de Beauregard, imposed him as the cinematographer on the feature debut of a Nouvelle Vague guy called Jean-Luc Godard.
Coutard’s analysis of the Nouvelle Vague was characteristically plain-spoken. “There were a bunch of young guys working at the Cahiers du Cinéma who made a lot of noise, saying ‘There’s no reason that a bunch of old farts should be making films, and not us’. They were right to speak up, because at the time it was very hard for a young person to make a feature.”
As could be expected of a movement spearheaded by film critics, theory preceded practice in the Nouvelle Vague. In 1948 critic Alexandre Astruc coined the important notion of caméra-stylo — the camera as pen — urging filmmakers to write as freely with cameras as writers using pens. Hervé Bazin, the founder of the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, championed a new realism. François Truffaut wrote a seminal essay about directors as auteurs — the French word for author. This was an early expression of what became known as the auteur theory referring to the uniquely personal imprint that certain directors leave on every film they make. Respect for the director’s personal vision lives on to this day in France, where it is unheard of to fire a director, and where final cut is considered a moral as well as a legal right.
Coutard pointed out that the respect for the director as auteur can be a disadvantage. “You can end up with a shooting script that is way too long, and the auteur may not want to cut it, so you waste time during production on scenes that will end up on the cutting room floor.” He added that, in his opinion, many of the auteurs of the Nouvelle Vague became conventional filmmakers.
“When you look back, most of these people ended up sitting in the chairs of the people they had criticized. The only one who truly wanted to change filmmaking, the only real revolutionary in my opinion, is Godard.”
Perhaps due to Coutard’s sense of adventure, and his own revolutionary streak, the cinematographer established the most important collaboration of his career with Godard. Together they shot seventeen films including:
— La Chinoise
— A Woman is a Woman
— My Life to Live
— Les Carabiniers
— Band of Outsiders
— Pierrot Le Fou
— Two or Three Things I Know About Her
— First Name: Carmen
The historic Godard-Coutard collaboration began with Breathless in 1960. Coutard recounted that the basis for Breathless was a magazine story about a real-life gangster. Godard had gone to see producer Beauregard “with some newspaper and magazine articles which he had selected, claiming that one could write a script based on any one of them. One of the articles was from a magazine called Detective and Truffaut had written on the page ‘this would make a good film”. Beauregard made a few conditions for the novice director: could his friend Truffaut sign the script? And would his pal Chabrol agree to being a technical consultant? Both of Godard’s colleagues had recently completed their first film, and they gladly lent their names to help Beauregard finance the unknown director’s debut.
The producer also demanded that Coutard be the cinematographer. “Jean-Luc was not happy about me at first, Coutard recalled, but we did a number of tests and it worked out between us.” The young director had some novel ideas for Breathless.
“Jean-Luc said that we would do a reportage [documentary], which meant shooting the whole film hand-held without using any lighting. The big idea was to get out of the tradition of the best of French cinema and to do a more realistic photography. No one had ever proposed shooting an entire fiction film handheld. Of course we must not forget that there was no budget for the film and it was considerably cheaper to shoot hand-held, on location and without lighting.”
Coutard told me that he assented to Godard’s challenge out of ignorance. “At the time I had no ideas about what cinema was. If I had known what was involved in shooting a hand-held film without lighting, I never would have done it, because I would never have believed that I could do it correctly.” There were no hand-held synch-sound cameras at the time, so Coutard shot Breathless almost entirely with an Eclair Cameflex which “made a hell of a noise”.
Because the Cameflex camera was neither silent nor crystal-controlled, the entire film had to be dubbed in post-production.
“If you look at the film closely, Coutard pointed out, you’ll notice that the rhythm of the actors’ speech is peculiar, there’s a pause between lines. That’s because all the dialogue was spoken by Jean-Luc during the shot, and the actor would repeat each of his phrases.”
Godard shot the film sequentially, in the order of the finished film, with unusual spontaneity. Coutard revealed that each day’s shooting script was often written the previous evening by Godard.
“You never knew what you were going to shoot the following day. He would arrive in the morning with the scene written in a big notebook, which no one was privy to. If we did everything he had written in the notebook, then he stopped shooting for the day and sent us home early, which really upset the producer.”
Coutard said that he added almost no lighting while shooting Breathless. He added occasional photoflood bulbs to raise the light level, and sometimes exchanged bulbs, like for the hotel bathroom scene; he also added sources to the dark newspaper office. Coutard’s initial contribution to the cinematographic look of the Nouvelle Vague can be characterized as anti-lighting, in combination with wonderfully free-flowing handheld camerawork.
A Girl and a Gun
Breathless remains a masterpiece of enduring purity and simplicity. Everything about the film radiates freedom and rebellion: Coutard’s hand-held camera, the location lighting, the jump cuts, the throw-away lines and carefree affect of Jean Seberg and anti-hero Jean-Paul Belmondo. It is a tribute to the film’s power that, almost sixty years later, its once revolutionary style feels completely contemporary.
The beauty of many of Godard’s early works defies analysis. There’s never much of a plot, but everything is in the telling, reflecting Godard’s famous line that “all you need for a film is a girl and a gun”. The director’s Nouvelle Vague opus trades complex story-telling for the complex telling of simple stories. Coutard’s softly lit images seem both realistic and poetic. The cinematographer pointed out that “practically all of Godard’s films are built around the same structure: impossible love almost always ending with someone’s death.”
Coutard cautioned that the deceptive simplicity of Breathless misled some filmmakers. “After Jean-Luc did his film, a lot of people thought that you could do anything with anyone and come out with a film. So there were a lot of cinematic experiments that turned out to be catastrophes. These imitators were forgetting that Jean-Luc was not just a guy with talent, he was a guy with genius.”
Coutard stated that Godard “is the only director with whom I have worked who you can take risks with. If we tried something difficult I would warn him that there might be a problem, he would say: ‘Fine let’s try it anyway’. And you could be sure that if the result wasn’t any good, we’d shoot it again. This allowed me to try things with him that I wouldn’t with other directors. Reshoots were impossible with other directors, because they were tied to their shooting schedules”. Not so with Godard.
According to Coutard, Godard was the supreme improviser. The director had assistants write scripts to get funding and shooting authorizations, but practically speaking the director would invent the film on a day-by-day basis; there was never much of a shooting schedule on a Godard film.
The pressure of improvisation could make Godard very gruff on the set. Coutard confessed that “Jean-Luc is someone I love, I have a lot of affection for him, but he can be unbearable.” Yet even during trying times the director could display a sense of humor. Coutard recalled an incident between Godard and a grip on a difficult shoot. Warned by Coutard to keep conversation with the director to a minimum, the grip had been limiting his responses to ‘Yes monsieur’ or ‘No monsieur’ during production. One day Godard met the grip off the set and asked him ‘Why do you always call me monsieur?’ The grip responded boldly and honestly: ‘Because you drag my ass’. ‘All right, concluded Godard, why don’t you continue to call me monsieur whenever I drag your ass, and the rest of the time call me Jean-Luc, that way I’ll know what’s what.”
Coutard confessed to a penchant for Godard’s brand of spontaneity and his lack of a script. “For me it’s good to preserve the mystery of filmmaking, it’s like ultrasound for pregnancy… What’s the point of knowing whether it’s a girl or boy ahead of time? That’s part of my desire in cinema, I like that kind of system of improvisation, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Coutard’s challenge as a cinematographer was to set the stage for Nouvelle Vague spontaneity and improvisation, often by sacrificing his own art of lighting. The cinematographer developed a system for location lighting that was simple, fast and flexible. He would point a dozen ordinary 500-Watt photoflood type bulbs at strips of silver reflective material taped on the ceiling. The result was soft light from above that raised the ambient level, and allowed shooting from virtually any angle in the room below. It also gave Godard the possibility at any time to set up one of his trademark 360-degree camera movements.
Coutard’s reflected lighting from above gave the Nouvelle Vague directors and actors unprecedented freedom to spontaneously change camera angles and blocking.
“I would have preferred to do Rembrandt lighting, rather than the low contrast stuff I did in many of the early films. At the same time I was satisfied by the way I managed the lighting. Given the limited time and means I had, the result wasn’t that bad.”
Coutard pioneered other cinematographic approaches to match Godard’s innovation in mise en scène. For example the cinematographer used a fast Ilford stock designed for still cameras to shoot the night exteriors of Breathless, and pushed it one stop. However takes were limited to fifteen seconds by the short still-camera load. The cinematographer used pushed Ilford again to get the unique grainy feel of Alphaville, Godard’s original mélange of the science fiction and detective genres. (This time they were able to get motion picture lengths of 1000 feet). In Les Carabiniers Coutard experimented even further, by raising the contrast of the development, and printing on to a extremely high-contrast stock usually reserved for titles.
After introducing the hand-held camera to French cinema, Coutard went on to re-invent the dolly move in collaboration with Nouvelle Vague directors. Godard and Coutard created camera movements of dazzling originality, particularly in wide-screen films like A Woman Is A Woman and Contempt.
“We were among the first to use a so-called Western dolly. We had a dolly with three wheels to facilitate sharp turns, this gave the whole film a very mobile look.”
Coutard shot four films for director François Truffaut, including the landmark Jules and Jim.
“In terms of framing, François would tell you what he wanted in the frame; whereas Jean-Luc would tell you what he didn’t want. When you’re framing for Jean-Luc you don’t follow the character, you follow a curve. He didn’t care as much what one saw as he did about the movement itself, whether it be a curve, a straight line, or whatever.”
As many of the novice directors of the Nouvelle Vague grew to desire more elaborate images, Coutard was able to evolve his lighting to a level of sophistication that was closer to his own taste. The masterful look of Jules and Jim was much more complex because “we had more time and more money. Also François had a découpage [shot breakdown] so it was actually possible to prepare the lighting ahead of time.” The same was true to of Coutard’s work on Jacques Demy’s Lola where he was able to mix his trademark ceiling bounce with more directional lighting.
Schoendoerffer & Costa-Gavras
Coutard came back to a reportage style with hand-held camera work for The 317th Section, which the cinematographer felt was “one of the best-made war movies, at least it’s true to my experience. For example, you never see the enemy, you just distinguish silhouettes or see bodies.” Coutard returned with director Schoendoerffer to Indochina to shoot the movie in neutral Cambodia during the American war in Vietnam.
Perhaps the culmination of Coutard’s more expressionistic lighting is to be found in his work for director Costa-Gavras in the political thriller Z and especially in The Confession, where the cinematographer often worked with penumbras, placing his exposure on the toe of the sensitometric curve, and using a direct hard light befitting the subject matter of interrogations.
Looking back over a long career of more than eighty feature films, Coutard saw one constant in his choices.
“I’ve always felt that when you decide to make a film, it has to be like a love story. You have to love the director or the script, and share a lot with the crew. The film can only work if it’s a love story, if it isn’t you shouldn’t bother doing the film. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the film will be good, because love stories aren’t always happy.”
When asked about his frequent sacrifice of lighting for the sake of mise en scène, the Nouvelle Vague soldier replied:
“If you have a choice, you should always sacrifice time you would use to light for the sake of the director, assuming that the director is going to use the time well. No one will ever go see a film because the cinematography is magnifique. The best case is when, as with Breathless or Jules and Jim, you come out of the film feeling overwhelmed. And you don’t single out the directing, the acting or the cinematography. You just feel the film is perfect — although it never really is.”
Wikipedia: Raoul Coutard
afcinema.com: Coutard, First Name: Raoul
Tributes by members of the AFC, the French society of cinematographers
ASC President’s Desk: Kees van Oostrum’s tribute, entitled The Coutard Dolly