If you’ve seen at least one or two films by Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, the chances are you’re probably familiar with Raoul Coutard’s magnificent work behind the camera. From Breathless, Lola and Jules et Jim to Week End and Z, Coutard was right there from the beginning of the French New Wave, and stayed until Godard put an end to it with the last shot of Week End: the notorious “FiN DE CiNEMA” in blue. Along with William Lubtchansky, Néstor Almendros, and Pierre-William Glenn, Coutard was one of the most iconic cinematographers who launched their careers during the New Wave, arguably the most exciting period in film history.
Today, we remember him primarily as that guy who shot almost all of the films Godard made in the 60’s (Coutard didn’t shoot Masculin Féminin). For better or for worse, it is in Godard’s films that Coutard’s talent really shines the brightest. Apart from those fourteen films they collaborated on throughout the 60’s, he also shot Passion and Prénom Carmen between ’82 and ’83. For me, these two films contain some of his career highlights, and certainly the most “beautiful” images he ever created.
I haven’t had a chance to check out Coutard’s directorl work, but it’s a shame that he did not have much of a post-Godard-Truffaut career as a cinematographer. In the 90’s, he teamed up with immensely talented Phillip Garrel on La naissance de l’amour, Le coeur fantôme, and Sauvage innocence, but that’s about it, really. (Nagisa Oshima’s Max, mon amour is another notable project he worked on, but personally I don’t consider it to be a major film.) This is in a stark contrast to his aforementioned contemporaries. Lubtchansky had a three-decade-long creative partnership with Jacques Rivette, and worked on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoa, Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) and Nouvelle vague, and several films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Almendros, as we all know, enjoyed a successful Hollywood career which resulted in Days of Heaven, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Sophie’s Choice, in addition to working on two Eric Rohmer classics Claire’s Knee and My Night at Maud’s, Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage, and Jean Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses. Glenn shot seminal Out 1, Truffaut’s Day for Night, and collaborated on key films directed by Maurice Pialat and Bertrand Tavernier.
Many film school textbooks characterize the French New Wave with mobile and fluid camera movememnts, thanks to the newly-invented lightweight equipments near the end of the 50’s. This is true. These cameras were light enough to be mounted on bicycles, and their portability probably contributed to the kinetic playfulness often found in the New Wave cinematography. However, most of Coutard’s greatest work is in those moments when we feel the weight of the camera. For instance, that POV shot during Nana’s dance in Vivre sa vie, despite its fluid camera movement, feels utterly heavy to me. Why might that be? Susan Sontag argues that Nana’s dance reveals her spiritual essence in this otherwise thoroughly materialistic film. And for me, this “heavyweight” POV dance shot contains the soul of Nana. I don’t know how Coutard did it, but he surely as hell managed to have the soul of Anna Karina’s character manifested through the weight of his camera.
The moments of soulful heaviness abound in Passion and Prénom Carmen. To begin with, Coutard’s camera in these utterly spiritual films feels shockingly well-behaved when placed next to, say, Jules et Jim and Week End. Yet, that’s not where this heaviness comes from. The static shot of the dark silhouette of a hand resting on a television screen in Prénom Carmen manages to speak infinitely more about spirituality than Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant in its entirety. There’s a simple explanation: Coutard understands that image is a medium for soul to enter and manifest itself, not the materialization of soul. In many ways, this is what many great paintings are all about. Godard was clever enough to recognize Coutard’s extraordinary gift, and asked him to shoot Passion, a film about a Polish filmmaker struggling to produce a series of tableau vivants. In the film, Jerry Radziwilowicz’s chracter is in a desperate search of the “right lighting” for his image, and our hero’s struggle is clearly an extension of Godard’s very own as a cinéaste. How must an artist working with such a synthetic and materialistic medium like film capture human soul in his work? Radziwilowicz’s Polish movie director doesn’t really find his answer, but Godard, with the help of Coutard, surely does. The answer: you don’t capture it, you invite it.