Vale Raoul Coutard
On the day that Trump won the US presidency, my other sad news was when I learned that the most innovative cinematographer of my lifetime had died.
When I was a young documentary cameraman, Raoul Coutard was my hero. I desperately wanted to be a new Coutard to a new Truffaut, to shoot the sort of films that they made together in France, like Shoot the pianist.
Raoul Coutard became a colleague of mine in 1965 when I was the British union stand-in on a first-time director’s would-be ‘English New Wave’ feature film called Scruggs that Raoul had been engaged to shoot. I did a crash course in French, in preparation for this great opportunity, and Raoul and I became friends, finding we had much in common.
The shoot went over schedule, Raoul had to go back to France, and he insisted to the producer that I take over as cinematographer. Fortunately, Raoul – like all great cinematographers - had been very generous in explaining both how and why he shot the way he did, so I don’t think anyone can spot the difference between his and my footage.
Raoul pioneered the highly mobile camera and the use of portable location lighting, bounced off the ceiling, which gave his directors the freedom to stage action wherever it suited them, rather than being restricted to the “lit” areas usual at that time.
In Paris, after our film was finished, he took me to a special shop (where he insisted I got the same discount as he did!) to buy the first polecats I had ever seen, plus clip-on lights so I could light locations from DYI horizontal polecat rigs out of picture. I subsequently used this technique on features, TVCs and documentaries. Our friendship continued until 1974, when I returned to live in Australia.
Raoul mellowed into old age, and in later interviews he has sanitised key events in his career, but I’m going to tell you the truth behind some events. The following, inter-related stories are the result of some sort of In vino veritas, except in this case the truth came, not from a bottle, but from smoking with Raoul in a Paris opium den.
Breathless, which Raoul shot for Jean-Luc Godard in 1960, totally changed how films were photographed. As Raoul said in a later interview, We felt we were doing something revolutionary, even if we didn’t know where it was all leading to.
It was not until ten years after the event that Raoul learned from director Jean-Luc Godard that his debut as cinematographer on Breathless was not at all welcomed.
Godard was a young Marxist-Leninist intellectual arch-critic of traditional filmmaking, so he didn’t want to work with a tough ex-army photojournalist. But the producer, Georges de Beauregard, owed Raoul some big favours for the feature films he had shot for him in Vietnam for next to nothing, so Jean-Luc Godard was forced to use him, rather than his own choice of cinematographer.
Godard quite deliberately planned to start shooting Breathless with the most difficult challenge for any cameraman, a long continuous tracking shot, going with the actors from the street exterior to deep inside a building.
In the film industry of the time, the exposure differences in such long continuous shots were considered impossible to cope with without huge lighting set-ups, and Godard insisted it must be done without lights, confident that Raoul would fail the challenge and could be sacked and replaced before most of the film was to be shot.
On the grounds of greater mobility and closer contact with the actors, Jean-Luc personally pushed Raoul in a wheelchair, but this was mainly so the cameraman could not get any help from a dolly-pushing grip, or the customary focus-pulling camera assistant.
But, having started as a photo-journalist, Raoul was used to setting his own focus and he was accustomed to judging exposure through the viewfinder, adjusting aperture as lighting circumstances changed. So, in the wheelchair, alone with Godard, he hand-held the bulky Cameflex camera, one finger of his right hand pulling focus, his left forefinger changing exposure as the actors went from sunlight to varying degrees of darkness inside the building – truly radical techniques for filmmaking until that very day.
This was Raoul’s trial-by-fire, but instead of being forced to quit for incompetence, he emerged as Godard’s favourite and went on to become the most-used cinematographer for French New Wave directors.
So why did Raoul have a period of some 15 years, until 1982, when he wasn’t asked to shoot for any of these directors? In fairly recent years, Raoul has been publicly tactful about this break up, inferring it was due to problems with the less-talented descendants of Jean-Luc Godard, who by the way will soon be 86 and still making films.
Raoul has now died at 92, so I don’t think he would mind me telling you the real story. Anyway, I’m 81 and retired now and, like Godard, I don’t much care.
You can learn from the internet that Raoul lived in Vietnam for 11 years from 1946, working as a photojournalist, initially for the French army magazine when France occupied that country. After the French-Indo-China war ended, Raoul stayed on there as a freelance magazine photographer. What Google won’t tell you about is his passion for that country and its people, nor that he married a Vietnamese woman and adopted the son she already had by another man. After the American invasion, Raoul and the family moved to Paris, where he set her up in Saigon sur Seine, her own restaurant.
Raoul never had any great ambition to direct films, but his passions had to find an outlet, and in 1969 he wrote and directed his first feature film, Hoa Binh (called Peace when released to the English- speaking world) about the plight of Vietnamese children who had grown up knowing nothing but war, from the Japanese in the 2nd World War, through fighting French colonialism, to the Americans trying to impose their foreign rule. In making this film Raoul had a cause, the injustice done by colonisers to generations of Vietnamese.
Hoa Binh was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and won an important prize at Cannes, but the film lost him friends in Paris. The film took no political line in its concern for the little people, nor did it support any system, but right-wing critics denounced it as Communist, while the left – including Jean-Luc Godard – condemned it as pro-American! If you’ve seen Hoa Binh, you probably think, as I do, that both those judgements are crazy.
After the film was released Godard wouldn’t even speak to Raoul for many years. Then Godard had a life-threatening motorbike accident, being dragged for almost a city block under a semi-trailer. When Raoul heard about it, he was greatly concerned about his old colleague and, without a hint of resentment, took to visiting him regularly in hospital.
It wasn’t until Godard’s rehabilitation period that he finally told Raoul how he had tried to get him sacked from the first film they made together. Then at last they could laugh at how this secret challenge had changed the course of film history forever.
To me, Raoul was the most “Australian” of Frenchmen (in the nicest possible way) completely modest, with a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour. I will miss him for the laughs we had together, and am really grateful for the inspiration he gave to filmmakers worldwide, as well as the filmmaking knowledge he passed on to me.
During filming of the assassination movie “Z” that Raoul shot for Greek director Costa Gavras, an English actor didn’t turn up, so Raoul stepped in and played a supposedly “British” doctor on screen, uttering the immortal line “Eesgon” - which translates into English as He has gone, meaning the hero has died. That’s exactly how I feel about Raoul’s passing.
David Muir ACS BSC.