If you have ever seen a film photographed by Raoul Coutard, you will never forget it. His distinctive style made him the first superstar cinematographer in the history of film.
Coutard has been consistently recognized by our best film critics. Saying that no other cinematographers can be discussed in the same terms as Coutard, the legendary late Pauline Kael (pictured above) noted that his work made films “breathe.” She was particularly taken with Coutard’s contribution to Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim.
Equally enthusiastic was the late Roger Ebert, who thought that Breathless marked the beginning of modern movies.
In “The Great Movies Two,” Ebert was passionate about Coutard’s influence on director Godard. He enumerated Coutard’s stylistic flourishes: the use of natural light; magnificent tracking shots; grainy, luminous images; handheld photography (before cameras were light enough to be easily handheld) and lustrous backlighting which no other cinematographer could manage to replicate.
Remarkably, Coutard produced spectacular effects on a tight budget. For example, he achieved memorable tracking shots by being pushed in a wheelchair or shopping cart while filming.
Remembered today primarily for his work with French New Wave directors, Coutard still managed to complete a body of work of more than 75 films over a period of 50 years.
The association with those New Wave directors earned Coutard the reputation of being “the eye of the New Wave.”
Launched in the late 1950’s, the French New Wave ran through 1964, but it wasn’t until the late 1960’s that the films were widely distributed in this country. Their impact was immediate and monumental: I remember walking out of The Flick theater in Denver, Colorado in 1970, being completely mesmerized by my first viewing of Breathless. Hollywood films were so much more staid then anything the New Wave produced — the improvisational, kinetic, semi-documentary style made domestic films seem like dry academic exercises.
Spearheading this pioneering movement were Truffaut, Godard, Eric Rhomer, and Calude Chabrol – all were inspired by the contributions of Coutard and fellow cinematographer, Henri Decae. It is frequently said that Coutard and Decae made the New Wave possible.
Outside of the New Wave, my favorite Coutard is Z, a film directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras. It contains cinematography that feels like exploding fireworks.
There are some supremely talented cinematographers who have come after Coutard: but in my estimation, he was an original whose ground breaking efforts will never be surpassed.
Raoul Coutard — RIP.