Cinematographer and Director. Nationality: French. Born: Paris, 16 September 1924. Military Service: Served with French forces in Indochina, 1945–50. Career: Worked in photographic laboratories; 1951–56—still photographer and combat reporter for Life, Paris-Match, and other magazines in the Far East; also photographer for French Ministry of Information; 1956—first film as cinematographer; 1967—first film as director; also made television advertisements. Awards: Jean Vigo prize, for Hoa-Binh, 1969; César award, for Le Crabe-Tambour, 1977; Venice Festival prize, for Prénom Carmen, 1983. Died: At Troyes, 5 September 1993.
Films as Cinematographer:
Paradiso terrestre (Emmer) (co)
Thau le pêcheur (Schöndörffer—short); La Passe du diable (Dupont and Schöndörffer)
Pêcheur d'Islande (Schöndörffer); Nicky et Kitty (Mercier—short)
A bout de souffle (Breathless) (Godard); Les Grandes Personnes (Valère); Chronique d'un été (Rouch and Morin) (co); Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player) (Truffaut)
Lola (Demy); Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim) (Truffaut); Une Femme est une femme (Godard); Tire-au-flanc 62 (de Givray) (+ ro)
La Poupée (Baratier); Vivre sa vie (Godard); "Antoine et Colette" ep. of L'Amour à vingt ans (Love at Twenty) (Truffaut); Et Satan conduit le bal (Dabat); Vacances portugaises (Kast); Bourdelle, sculpteur monumental (Navarra—short) (co)
Le Petit Soldat (Godard—produced 1960); Les Carabiniers (Godard); Als tween druppels water (Spitting Image) (Rademakers); Les Baisers (Tavernier and others); Le Mépris (Contempt ) (Godard) (+ ro); "Le Grand Escroc" ep. of Les Plus Belles Escroqueries du monde (Godard); La Difficulté d'être infidèle (Troublanc-Michel)
Bande à part (Godard); Les 317e Section (Schöndörffer); Je vous salue, Maria (Lévy); Un Monsieur de compagnie (Male Companion) (de Broca); La Peau douce (The Soft Skin) (Truffaut); La Femme mariée (Godard); L'Avatar botanique de Mlle. Flora (Barbillon—short); Petit jour (Pierre—short) (co)
Alphaville (Godard); Pierrot le fou (Godard); Les Voix d'Orly (Lachenay—short); Scruggs (A Game Called Scruggs) (Hart)
L'Horizon (Rouffio); Made in U.S.A. (Godard); Riom le beau (Guilbert—short)
The Sailor from Gibraltar (Richardson); L'Espion (The Defector) (Levy); Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle (Godard); Weekend (Godard); La Chinoise (Godard); Concerto Brandebourgeois (Reichenbach—short) (co); La Mariée était en noir (The Bride Wore Black) (Truffaut); Vive eau (Roger—short)
L'Éoile du sud (The Southern Star) (Hayers); Rocky Road to Dublin (Lennon); Au péril de la mer (Roger—short)
Z (Costa-Gavras) (+ ro)
L'Aveu (The Confession) (Costa-Gavras) (+ ro); Jolly Green (+ d, sc—short); Etes-vous fiancée à un marin grec ou à un pilote de ligne? (Aurel); La Liberté en croupe (Molinaro)
L'Explosion (Simenon) (+ ro); Le Trèfle à cinq feuilles (Freess); Les Aveux les plus doux (Molinaro); The Jerusalem File (Flynn)
Embassy (Hessler); Le Gang des otages (Molinaro)
Comme un pot de fraises! (Aurel)
Le Crabe-Tambour (Schöndörffer)
La Légion sauté sur Kolwezi (+ d)
Le Diagonale du fou (Dangerous Moves) (Dembo); Prénom Carmen (First Name Carmen) (Godard)
La Garce (Pascal); Du Sel sur la peau (Deges)
Max mon amour (Max, My Love) (Oshima)
Blanc de chine (Granier-Deferre); Brennende Betten (Burning Beds) (Frankenberg) Ne réveillez pas un flic qui dort (Pinheiro); Peaux de vaches (Mazuy)
La femme fardeé (Pinheiro); Bethune: The Making of a Hero (Dr. Bethune) (Borsos); Il gèle en enfer (Mocky)
Les Enfants volants (The Flying Children) (Nicloux) (co)
La Vie crevée (The Punctured Life) (Nicloux)
La Naissance de l'amour (Garrel)
Faut-pas rire au bonheur (Happiness Is No Joke) (Nicloux)
Films as Director:
Singal l'antilope sacrée (short); Tu es danse et vertige (short)
Hoa-Binh (Peace) (+ co-sc)
La Légion saute sur Kolweizi
SAS à San Salvador (SAS—Terminate with Extreme Prejudice)
By COUTARD: articles—
Cinéma (Paris), January 1965.
"Light of Day," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1965–66.
Braucout, Guy, "Raoul Coutard pour des raisons simplement humaines," in Les Lettres Françaises (Paris), 11 March 1970.
Films and Filming (London), June 1970.
Show (New York), 17 September 1970.
Revue du Cinéma (Paris), February 1971.
Cinéma Français (Paris), no. 33, 1980.
Cinématographe (Paris), July 1981.
Le Technicien du Film (Paris), July/September 1982.
Filmkritik (Munich), July 1983.
Film Français (Paris), 19 October 1984.
On COUTARD: articles—
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), 1963.
Film (Hanover), no. 9, 1965.
Lennon, Peter, "La Vie Coutard," in The Guardian (London) 15 December 1966.
Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 2, 1970.
Lennon, Peter, "The Film World's Cool Hand Luke," in The Daily Telegraph (London), 17 July 1970.
Kent, Leticia, "Coutard: War Can Be Beautiful," in New York Times, 12 September 1971.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Film Français (Paris), 3 February 1978.
Canby, Vincent, in New York Times, 19 February 1984.
Bergery, B., "Raoul Coutard: Revolutionary of the Nouvelle Vague," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1997.
Solman, G., "Remembering Raoul," in Variety's On Production (Los Angeles), no. 2, 1997.
* * *
Most readily identified with Godard and, to a lesser extent, Truffaut, Raoul Coutard's unorthodox, technically unsophisticated but highly imaginative photography became an expression of French New Wave values. In the era of lightweight cameras and fast filmstock which prized inventiveness and naturalness above the studied, polished images of the fifties, he was at home working quickly with hand-held cameras in locations invariably underlit by textbook standards. His direct, simplified approach to filming also broke with traditional aesthetics by drawing attention to the camera in films such as A bout de souffle or Le Petit Soldat. His challenging innovations were so rapidly assimilated as to become, in many respects, the new orthodoxy of the sixties both in France and further afield. His influence in America, for example, shows in the work of Konrad Hall, Laszlo Kovaks, Gordon Willis, and Vilmos Zsigmond.
The qualities of freshness and resourcefulness inherent in Coutard's approach are attributable to an absence of formal training and to his fieldwork experience, initially as an army photographer in Indochina and later as a daring photojournalist for Radar, Paris-Match, and Life.
Feature work ensued with Ramuntcho, a film about smugglers in the Basque country and Pêcheur d'Islande, with the life of deep-sea fishermen as its subject. Remarkable for its images of stormy seas, the film anticipates by two decades Coutard's award-winning photography of ships and dramatic seascapes in Le Crabe-Tambour.
The sixties brought collaboration with a variety of directors including Demy, Kast, Valère, Richardson, and Costa-Gavras, though most notably with Godard and Truffaut. His work for Valère in Les Grandes Personnes, with its Parisian setting captured in flat, naturalistic lighting, reveals the influence of Decaë. For Demy's Lola, with its striking slow motion sequences at the fairground, he obtained the distinctively rich blacks and whites by using Gevaert 36 film; for Costa-Gavras in Z the political message of the investigative documentary is effectively pointed by subjective shots and informative close-ups.
Coutard's association with Truffaut resulted in films which were remarkable for their atmospheric qualities and their sympathetic treatment of character. In Tirez sur le pianiste, the pastiched mood of the American B movie is established as the camera tracks through dark streets and, in terms of characterization, a slow pan round Charlie's room becomes a delicate revelation of his painful past; in La Mariée était en noir, homage to Hitchcock is found in the play of tracking shots and close-ups to create tension and engender audience identification; in Jules et Jim, the richly varied camerawork reflects the pattern of moods dictated by the mercurial Catherine. In his work with Truffaut, Coutard excelled in conveying the full weight of the psychological moment. In Tirez sur le pianiste a lengthy close-up of a finger hesitating above a doorbell renders the violinist's apprehension before the audition while rapid camera movements brilliantly convey Charlie's panic and desperation as he rushes, too late, to his suicidal wife. In Jules et Jim, Coutard captures the sheer exuberance of the sun-drenched bicycle rides, or the innocent joy of childish games, or the initial awkwardness, then exhilaration, of the reunion as the camera hesitantly, then excitedly, links the protagonists, or conveys the depth of Jim's feelings with the camera soaring above the trees to deny the distance between the chalet and the hotel.
Nevertheless, it is above all in his contribution to Godard's subversive cinema of ideas during the sixties and in the early eighties that Coutard revolutionized approaches to cinematography. There were frequent experiments with film stock. For A bout de souffle a raw newsreel quality was achieved by using Ilford HPS photographic film; for Les Carabiniers, a special processing was employed to produce the documentary realism of harsh blacks and whites rather than muted grays; in Vivre sa vie starkly contrasting monochrome images underpin the bleak depiction of prostitution; in La Femme mariée or Le Petit Soldat dehumanization is conveyed in clinically detached photography of characters against empty white backgrounds while the chilling mood of alienation in Alphaville derives from the camera's emphasis of inhumane architecture and the harsh neon lights of Paris by night. Coutard's color photography for Godard was equally experimental. In Le Mépris the symbolic play of reds, blues, and yellows is emphasized by the use of film stock which enhances sensitivity; in Une Femme est une femme color is used for dramatic purposes to serve the mood; in La Chinoise primary colors translate the brutality of the Vietnam war, and in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle, the display of brightly-colored commercial products exposes the temptations of Western materialism. With the luxuriant color of Pierrot le fou, there are elements of unusual beauty in the reflection of traffic lights on the car windshield or in the images of the protagonists walking through long grass as the car blazes. In Passion, concerned as it is with light and pictorial representation, Coutard's experience as a lighting cameraman was invaluable.
Coutard's use of long tracking shots—from the hand-held camera in a bath chair for the sequence at Orly airport in Une Femme mariée to the shocking ten-minute account of the murderous traffic jam in Weekend—has been daring. Equally challenging has been the use of the distancing longshot in Pierrot le fou, Week-end or Les Carabiniers, and, in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle, for example, the use of the extreme close-up of a coffee cup to achieve a degree of abstraction or, in Vivre sa vie, a telling concentration on Nana's pen as she struggles over an illiterate letter.
In the nineties Coutard enabled a new generation of filmmakers to bring their vision to the screen. For Garrel he provided aptly prosaic black-and-white images of workaday Paris as a framework for the mid-life crises explored in La Naissance de l'amour, while in three films for Nicloux, he again conveyed bleak, soulless moods through restrained camerawork. In Les Enfants volants, he worked with Jean Badal to provide a controlled, dispassionate portrait of the deranged and murderous protagonist; in La Vie crevée, his camera perceptively observes the maneuvers of a manipulative older male (Michel Piccoli) destroying the previously happy relationships of two young couples, while in Faut-pas rire au bonheur, long takes characterize the unfolding of the director's gloomy tale of chance encounters set in Coutard's familiar nighttime Paris.
Although Coutard enjoyed a measure of polite recognition as a director with films such as Hoa-Binh, it is essentially his work as a cinematographer that has determined his reputation. He is justly acknowledged to be not only the unrivaled interpreter of the Godardian vision, but also the most consistently adventurous and influential of the New Wave cameramen.
—R. F. Cousins