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RIP Raoul Coutard: The Man Who Made Cinematography Invisible

Whether it's in a drone tracking shot or the referential pastiche of Tarantino and Wes Anderson, Coutard's vision of hyper-staged naturalism is everywhere.

by Patrick Marlborough
Nov 14 2016, 12:00am

Raoul Coutard. Image via YouTube

You probably missed it as Donald Trump ascended to the presidency but cinematographer Raoul Coutard died at age 92 on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

He shot 25 of the most successful French New Wave films over a 43-year career.

If you like the hyper-referential pastiche of Tarantino and Wes Anderson, then you like the work of Raoul Coutard. His work in film ripples through the aesthetic of modern alternative culture and art: be it in the Instagram filter, the manic pixie dream girl, or the drone camera tracking shot. Coutard proliferated the hyper-aware sense of staged naturalism that has become the look of motion picture in 2016.

Coutard was born in 1924 into a family of communists. He abandoned chemistry for war, joining the French Far East Expeditionary Corps in 1945, soon finding himself in French Indochina. It was here he became a photojournalist, the claustrophobic frenetic energy of the conflict informing his rapid-fire documentary aesthetic. He returned to France and continued freelancing for Paris Match and Look.

He came to film, relatively late and inexperienced, in the late 50s. Eventually, he was hired by infamous producer George de Beaureguard to work with an ostentatious film critic turned first time director: Jean-Luc Godard. Their first project was Boute de Souffle, aka Breathless, in 1960. It would reshape the trajectory of modern cinema and filmmaking.

Breathless plays out as a madcap inversion of gangster B-movies, a punkish on-the-fly masterpiece now reflected upon as the turning point of 20th-century film. It was made on a shoestring, and Godard was brimming with manic brilliance, constantly rewriting the "script," and forcing improvisations upon the cast and the crew.

Coutard needed to adapt as well as catch the mad energy of the creative process, and somehow transfuse it with a threadbare narrative. He used a light Caméflex Éclair 35mm camera, whipping it around like a dad at a backyard BBQ. The combination of natural lighting and newsreel-like use of "shakycam" created an erratically voyeuristic experience. It was something new, a spontaneous dialect, and Coutard was the one who captured it.

Coutard's work with Godard, as well as that other titan of the French new-wave, Francois Truffaut, would lead to some of the most visually inventive moments in cinematic history.

In Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962), his lingering camera made us feel like a fourth party waiting to pounce upon the fragile love triangle.

This tracking shot in Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player epitomizes the deft-hand ingenuity of Coutard, as well as showcasing his ability to adapt to his collaborator of the moment:

In Alphaville, looming close ups and use of street lighting paved the way for the bleak neo-noir aesthetic of Bladerunner.

Coutard also captured the turbulent romance between Jean-Luc Godard and actress (and then wife) Anna Karina—her waifish figure and doe eyes caught in the headlights of his intimate camera work. Nowhere did he and Godard translate her startling intelligence more brilliantly than in the pop-art hyperactivity of Pierre le Fou (1965)—Coutard turning Karina and co-star Jean-Paul Belmondo into postmodern Sunday-funny comic strips.

Coutard's genius reached a new peak in Godard's existential-erotic masterpiece Contempt. The way his camera captured a naked Brigitte Bardot both excites and condemns: we are voyeurs, as much Peeping Tom as welcomed guest. Somehow, Coutard's cinematography reverberates with the moral elusiveness of the film—we are left aroused and unsure, questioning what has happened.

It is sheer brilliance, and easily Coutard and Godard's most consistent work. Architecture and movement blend into a deceptively simple lyric poetry—the mania of Breathless is still there, but like Bardot, it's stifled and subdued.

In a 2012 interview with Film Comment, Coutard remarked that filmmaking was "the kind of profession where you actually want to change, and that's inventing." You could take the films he made between 1960 and 1970 alone and behold an eclectic monument of shifting form, style, and thought.

In a sense, Coutard was the dream DP because his intuitiveness allowed him not just to adapt to the scene or the moment but also to the people behind that moment—the director, the actor, and a tripping extra.

He described himself as a "fascist of the right" and Godard as a "fascist of the left" but somehow his essential humanism intersected with Godard's overweening didactics to make something new, fresh, exciting.

He embodied the spirit of independent filmmaking, of art through improvisation and experiment: be it using a wheelchair as a dolly in Breathless or mastering the madcap color scheme of Techniscope.

Chances are, your favorite films are infused with the wit and spirit of Coutard. Filmmakers from Scorsese to Jarmusch, Altman to Paul Thomas Anderson, Leone to Tarantino, have all cited his work as influence, and have all in their own way imitated Coutard's mad-mutt aesthetic.

He was the kind of artist whose spirit is as much present in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol as it is in Paul Verhoeven's Elle. That is a rare level of influence and immortality. He is the shaky-cam, the invisible watcher.

Godard once quipped that "a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But not necessarily in that order." Coutard was the master of beginnings, and due to the nature of his work, death does not seem to cement him in an "end."

He is a jump cut away from existence. He was a man apart.

Follow Patrick Marlborough on Twitter.

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