Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Film
11 November 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:49pm

Remembering Raoul Coutard, the French New Wave cinematographer (1924-2016)

A journey through the late filmmaker’s most elegant and radical shots.

By Ryan Gilbey

The great cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who died this week aged 92, was the eyes of the French New Wave: after beginning his career in photojournalism and reportage, he worked with Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut on some of the films that made their name, including À bout de souffle for the former and Shoot the Piano Player and Jules et Jim for the latter.

You might also say he was the wheels of that movement – he was pushed in a wheelchair by Jean-Luc Godard to achieve the fluid, free-flowing dolly shots in their groundbreaking collaboration À bout de souffle, and created the tracking shot to end them all, prowling alongside a bloody and never-ending traffic jam, in Weekend.

He had met Godard in the late 1950s. “The first time I saw Jean-Luc Godard, he was . . . shaggy-haired, smoking his pipe, withdrawn behind his dark glasses, silent,” Coutard recalled. “At second contact, the preparation for À bout de souffle, he was more talkative . . . Little by little we found we needed to abandon the conventional, and even go against the rules and the accepted ‘cinematographic grammar.’”

If a director could imagine it, chances are Coutard could put it on the screen. One of his most radical films with Godard is Alphaville, their seventh collaboration. Shot in 1964, it uses real Parisian locations in a resourceful and audacious way to present a sinister city of the future.

Through Coutard’s lens, Paris became the embodiment of an uncertain, provisional and in many ways pessimistic new world. “We are already living in the future,” said the director, who noted that Tarzan Vs IBM would have been a suitable alternative title for the movie.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Though Alphaville is among the more fractured of their collaborations, Coutard still pulls off some of the elegant “feats” that Godard adored. One four-minute shot follows the hard-boiled detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) across a hotel lobby, where he checks in under the guise of a reporter, then into the glass elevators (with Lemmy in one and Coutard and his camera in the adjacent lift), which then rise in concert, disgorging their passengers a few floors up, where the camera continues to track along the corridor with its subject.

In a film as fragmented as Alphaville, where the flow is continually being broken up by close-ups and inserts (hands, lights, faces, gadgets), this smooth choreography bestows a calming effect on the movie’s unstable new world.