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 shaggy-haired, smoking his pipe, withdrawn behind his dark glasses, silent,” Coutard recalled.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.
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.