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Coutard of the Godard Fame (Part 2) by Surendar Chawdhary

[From Truffaut’s Softskin, Coutard had switched to discussing Jean-Luc Godard’d Breathless by the end of Part 1. “Every morning Godard would come with notes for that day’s shooting. When he brought blank pages, that meant no shooting that day,” Coutard chuckled. “Anyway, he always shot in sequence and controlled that film—and many others afterwards—on a one-line formula: Take a situation of impossible love and resolve it with death. That’s what gives those otherwise cold films their emotional core.”

Read on.]

However, emotional core of a Godard film is one thing, but any effort on the part of actors to play out that emotion is quite another. Coutard recalled for us a revealing account of a conflict Godard had with his actress, the close-cropped Jean Seberg. Having all along been told not to project, not to emote, do nothing!, she revolted when it came to the scene where she has to report her lover Jean-Paul Belmondo to the police. The two fought and she being a star, the scene in the restaurant where she paces up and down before picking up the phone was eventually done her way. “Those veins showing on Seberg’s pretty face was an impurity for Godard which he never again allowed in any of his films.”

On the other hand, Godard had been very flexible on camera placement. When pointed out that the camera could not be placed looking in a given direction for reasons of a window, he would ask it placed differently. He was delighted when Coutard, using his experience as a war reporter, came up with the idea that small 35mm rolls of faster film used by still photographers could be adapted for their use. Since nobody had until then asked for this more sensitive stock for film shooting, it was marketed only for the requirements of still photography. A grainy, chalky look of a lot of interiors in Breathless comes from the extensive first time use of this stock, which was perhaps the first conscious step in the cinema towards liberating action from the tyranny of heavy lighting.

Coutard’s account of his mentor generally confirms the difficult man that that genius is known to be. Last November as part of their hundred years of cinema celebrations, Alliance Francaise had circulated a packet of Truffaut films accompanied by a feature length documentary of homages by his colleagues and Godard is a conspicuous absentee from that film. “They had not been friends for a long time, so it is possible,” Coutard sought to explain. “In fact Godard has almost become friendless over the years, bitter that all others had drifted so soon after the first burst of energy to the mainstream. And that includes Truffaut.”

Coutard conducting a cinematography workshop at FTII, Pune

The shooting demonstration on the fourth day of the workshop was exclusively a specialization activity confined to the cinematography students. For this they decided to work around a script outline involving a woman receiving a couple of friends in her newly acquired large flat. The situation was chosen partly to fit available neighborhood premises of similar description and partly to provide typical cinematographic challenges: The three characters, for example, had skin tones ranging from fair to dark; the action involved at one point a cramped shooting space and at another 2-3 lights switched off during the shot; and the hall, having a large number of glass panels, threatened to give away the lights as well as the shooting crew during a 360 degree shot following the woman as she goes showing her flat to the guests. And all this Coutard was asked to light, operate and shoot on different black and white and colour stocks while the students assisted and watched.

“Perfect negative,” the students exclaimed as they came out of the laboratory the next day. And “Perfect operation,” as they saw the black and white rushes—colour had to be sent to Mumbai for processing—on the concluding day of the workshop.

The same evening Coutard flew to Delhi, and onwards to Paris.

I should like to conclude this report with a mention of what might be one of the more lasting gains of Raoul Coutard’s visit to the Institute.

What is the famed “Coutard style” of lighting? Of camerawork? And how might he have come to develop and perfect it? This was the question uppermost in the students’ mind as the countdown began to Raoul Coutard’s visit. And he was confronted with it almost right away on arrival.

“Others say I have a style but I don’t have one,” Coutard began to answer characteristically in detail. “The style is evolved differently from film to film, script to script, director to director. When faced with the challenge of shooting outdoors in available light for Breathless, the shadow less lighting system had to be developed which some people mistook to be my style. My style is not the same working with Godard and, say, Francois?”

The answer didn’t seem to satisfy the students; some thought that he was being modest and carried on a dogged campaign all through the workshop to prove that maybe unknown even to himself he had gathered something of a style—“via the Dutch and Italian paintings, perhaps,” which he had said he admires? But the veteran cinematographer of more than fifty features would have none of that. In another meeting some of us pointed out that another system of shadow less lighting—fixing a bank of 200 watt tungsten bulbs in a box and stretching a sheet of butter paper over it—had been developed by Subroto Mitra and Satyajit Ray prior to Breathless for their Apu Trilogy. Coutard hadn’t been aware of that but shot back, “So that should be his style too!”

Perhaps this would take some time—and “footage”—for the youngsters to fully appreciate the import of what Coutard had been trying to tell them. And it’s not going to be easy because of the alarming implications of that answer. Does this mean Gregg Toland has no style without Citizen Kane, Sven Nykvist none without Ingmar Bergman? And what about Eisenstein’s Edvard Tisse, and our own Subroto Mitra? As some of the best-known cinematographers in the history of the cinema, are these legends all without cinematographic style of their own?

Hearts can go breaking but the nature of the medium of cinema would seem to say yes.

Coutard with the students of FTII outside the famous Classroom Theatre or the CRT as it is called.

Surender Chawdhary is a retired Professor and Head of Direction Department at the Film & Television Institute of India, Pune. He currently resides in Gurugram in Delhi, NCR. This blog in two parts has been published at various fora before and is a part of Prof. Chawdhary's Wordpress blog blogsite.

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