The Guardian obituary of Raoul Coutard (Sept 16, 1924-November 8, 2016) describes him as “one of the great modern cinematographers and the principal lighting cameraman of the French New Wave”. This is no exaggeration. Coutard, who has died at the age of 92, was to the films of Jean-Luc Godard what Sven Nykvist was to Ingmar Bergman and Subrata Mitra to the early works of Satyajit Ray – the indispensable fellow traveller without whom their cinema would not be what it is.
Among Coutard’s stylistic characteristics were long and fluid takes, the use of natural light, the ability to create a documentary feel to the events being filmed, smooth camera movements despite shooting on real locations and iconic close-ups. He trained as a stills photographer and later worked in documentaries before making the leap into cinema with the French New Wave in the 1960s.
Coutard also directed three films, including Hoa Binh (1970), in which he revisited the 11 years he spent in Vietnam in the ’40s and ‘50s through the experiences of a young boy during the Vietnam War.
One of Coutard’s early contributions was to the documentary Chronicle of a Summer (1961) about the humans of Paris and directed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin.
Coutard’s breakthrough was in Jean Luc-Godard’s French New Wave classic Breathless (1960). Many of the stylistic elements on which Coutard built his reputation are present in Godard’s visionary movie. Coutard shot most of Godard’s best-known titles, including A Woman is a Woman (1961), The Little Soldier (1963), Band of Outsiders (1963), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Passion (1982).
Coutard also forged a brief partnership with Godard’s French New Wave ally and future foe, Francois Truffaut, lensing his Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Jules et Jim (1962), and The Bride Wore Black (1968).
Rocky Road to Dublin (1967), Peter Lennon’s documentary about the oppressive policies that governed Ireland, was among the non-fiction films that Coutard shot in between working on Godard’s Weekend (1967) and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black.
Although Coutard was most closely associated with Godard, he also worked with other big-name European directors, including Jacques Demy. Lola (1961) is a tribute to Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) as well as the cinema of Max Ophuls.
Coutard went behind the camera for Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), loosely based on the real-life assassination of a charismatic Greek politician and the subsequent cover-up. Z created a template of sorts for how political thrillers were narrated and shot. Costa-Gavras’s Confession (1970), about the imprisonment and torture of a Czech Communist leader, was also shot by Coutard.
Coutard’s later collaborators include Guillaume Nicloux (Faut Pas Rire du Bonheur, 1994) and Philippe Garrel (The Birth of Love, 1993, and Wild Innocence, 2001). Wild Innocence, about the production of a film about heroin consumption, was Coutard’s last assignment.
Coutard’s best moments are to be found in the films of Jean-Luc Godard. In an interview to the Observer newspaper in 2010, Coutard reflected on Breathless, where it all began: “I’m aware now that what we made was iconic, but at the time… no. I used a Caméflex Éclair 35mm camera and they always say oh, ‘handheld’ photography. It’s true that it was light and easy to move and reload quickly but it made one hell of a noise. I still have that terrible din in my ears. Do I still have the camera that captured those iconic shots? No, no, no. It was a cheap movie. We hired the camera and had to give it back.”