Raoul Coutard, Cinematographer of the French New Wave, Dies at 92




Raoul Coutard, left, on the set of “The Soft Skin” in 1964.

Athos Films, via Photofest

Raoul Coutard, whose innovative camera work for Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut made him the leading cinematographer of the French New Wave, died on Tuesday in Labenne, near Bayonne, France. He was 92.

His death was reported by Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Coutard, a former photojournalist in French Indochina, had never operated a movie camera when he was asked to “do some photos” for “The Devil’s Pass,” an adventure film being made in Afghanistan in 1958.

“I agreed, but if I had known that the job was actually director of photography and that the film was to be in Cinemascope, I would never have said yes,” he told The Guardian in 2001.

After the film was nominated for the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, its producer, Georges de Beauregard, hired Mr. Coutard as a cinematographer for his next project, “Breathless,” Mr. Godard’s directorial debut. It proved to be a turning point in French cinema.

Shot in documentary style, in natural light, with a constantly moving hand-held camera, “Breathless” overthrew the polished aesthetics of 1950s French film, introducing a B-movie rawness and energy.

“We tried to make it like we were a news crew,” Mr. Coutard told The Houston Chronicle in 2010. “I handled the camera and the lighting, and I had one assistant who was the focus puller. There was no gaffer for the light, and just one grip who was moving around equipment.”

Breathless – Trailer Video by The Criterion Collection

The film electrified audiences and critics, and made overnight stars of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. “It was a revolution,” Le Monde wrote in its obituary of Mr. Coutard.

Sometimes described as “the eye of the New Wave, ” Mr. Coutard went on to make more than a dozen films with Godard, including “Contempt” and “Weekend,” and four films with Mr. Truffaut, notably “Jules and Jim” and “The Bride Wore Black.”

JULES & JIM TRAILER Video by Umbrella Entertainment

He became known for his mobile camera and long tracking shots. Using the latest film stocks, he achieved a lustrous chiaroscuro in his black-and-white films, and dazzling, saturated hues in his color films. Armond White, surveying his career in Film Comment in 1989, called him “the first superstar cinematographer.’’


Mr. Coutard in 2007.

Jacques Demarthon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Raoul Coutard was born on Sept. 16, 1924, in Paris, where his father was an accountant for Hoffmann-LaRoche, the pharmaceutical company. He passed the entrance exam to study chemistry, but, lacking the tuition money, he went to work at a photo lab.

In 1945 he enlisted in the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and served in Indochina, rising to platoon sergeant in northern Laos. After completing a tour of duty, he returned to do war photography for the French Military Information Service. At the same time, he accompanied ethnographic expeditions in the region, recording village life and customs and photographing the landscape.

He later worked from Indochina as a freelance photographer, contributing to the magazines Radar, Paris Match and Life.

In Hanoi he befriended Pierre Schoendoerffer, another photographer, and the two made a pact, which Mr. Coutard described in a memoir, “L’Impériale de Van Su: How I Broke Into the Movies While Eating a Bowl of Chinese Soup” (1997). The first one to make a film would bring the other along.

In 1958, Mr. Schoendoerffer found himself directing “The Devil’s Pass” with Jacques Dupont and, true to his word, invited Mr. Coutard abroad.

The two went on to make many films together, notably “The 317th Platoon” (1964) and “Drummer Crab” (1977). “Drummer Crab,” a Conradian tale of the high seas, showed Mr. Coutard at his most ravishing. “Coutard turns the sea into molten silver, the setting sun into spreading red fire, Vietnam into terrain hot with dangerous and hidden life,” The Miami Herald wrote in 1984.

Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, “Although it’s extremely difficult for laymen, including most movie reviewers, to know exactly who is responsible for the ‘look’ of any particular film, it should be possible at this point to acknowledge Mr. Coutard’s genius; that is, his rare ability to realize the very different objectives of each of the major directors he has worked with.”


Jean Seberg, left, with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the 1960 film “Breathless,” one of Mr. Coutard’s early cinematography efforts.

Rialto Pictures/StudioCanal

His collaboration with Mr. Godard ended when France was engulfed by the political events of 1968. “Jean-Luc is a fascist of the left, and I am a fascist of the right,” Mr. Coutard told The Guardian. But the two reunited in the early 1980s to make “Passion” and “First Name: Carmen.”

He also had a falling-out with Mr. Truffaut, with whom he had collaborated on “Shoot the Piano Player” and “The Soft Skin.”

“The Bride Wore Black” (1967) was their last film together. “I had the ridiculous idea to quit smoking at the same time we were filming the movie,” Mr. Coutard told The Houston Chronicle. “I was very unbearable and very unpleasant, so we parted ways after that.”

The Bride Wore Black (1968) Theatrical Trailer Video by UQBAR8

Mr. Coutard was the cinematographer on Jacques Demy’s “Lola,” which made a star of Anouk Aimée, and on two of the best-known films by Costa-Gavras, “Z” and “The Confession.” He also contributed to “Chronicle of a Summer,” a 1960 film directed by the cinéma-vérité pioneer Jean Rouch with the sociologist Edgar Morin.

As the New Wave ebbed, he began making his own films. “Hoa-Binh” (“Peace”), which dramatized the effects of war on the children of Vietnam, won the prestigious Prix Jean Vigo and in 1971 was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign-language film.

Mr. Coutard followed up with “Operation Leopard,” about a 1978 military raid by French forces in Zaire, and “SAS in San Salvador,” a political thriller.

Mr. Coutard, who lived in Boucau, near Bayonne, is survived by his wife, Monique Herran. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

He worked as a cinematographer on more than 80 films, most recently Philippe Garrel’s “Wild Innocence,” released in 2001, but his collaborations with the directors of the New Wave remain his legacy.

It was a time he recalled with fondness and a touch of amusement.

“At the beginning of the New Wave, they thought they could do anything because they had no idea what cinema was,” he told the journal Post Script in 2010. “That’s what made it dramatic, that they didn’t think there were limits to what you could do. I put together a system to make it easy to work.”

Correction: November 11, 2016

An obituary on Thursday about the cinematographer Raoul Coutard misstated the title of a memoir he wrote. It is “L’Impériale de Van Su,” not “L’Imperiale Du Van.”

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