Random acts of genius

by · Posted in: musings · photography techniques

Hotel Scene from À bout de souffle
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Cinematography by Raoul Coutard

1959 was a notable year for cinema. Ben Hur swept the Academy Awards picking up awards for Best Picture, Music, Sound, Film Editing, Special Effects, Costume Design, Art Direction, Actor, and supporting Actor. It also picked up the award for Best Cinematography, Color. Until 1967 the Academy gave two cinematography awards, one for color and one for black and white.

William C. Mellon won the Oscar for black and white cinematography for his work on The Diary of Anne Frank. Mellon's photography was quintessential Hollywood. He was known for classics such as Giant and had already won an Oscar for a A Place in the Sun in 1952. The Academy recognized Mellon's extreme precision and craft with the well-deserved award, but by today's standards it looks dated because of the compromises in realism made in the name of an established style. For instance, one can't help wonder how Anne ended up in a building with both secret rooms and such great light. Everyone looks so attractive all the time. Movies, even those about the Holocaust, had to make room for Hollywood's glamour. It was an artifice of the genre that most audiences and directors were prepared to accept.

But not Jean-Luc Goddard. While Robert Surtees and William Mellon were shooting their soon-to-be oscar-winning films, Godard was pushing his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, around in a wheelchair because it was a quicker way of shooting smooth camera movements than building rails and using dollies. À bout de souffle, known in English as Breathless would be Godard's first feature and his first of many collaborations with Coutard. Although the clothes, haircuts, and black and white film are vintage 60s, the film still looks surprisingly fresh, a result of Goddard's peculiar directing and editing style and Coutard's photography.

Godard rejected the norms of film making—large crews, careful lighting, makeup, a well-rehearsed script, etc. Union regulations required a makeup artist, but Godard would not let her work. And the script didn't really exist. All accounts say the Godard would write the dialog for a scene either the night before it was shot or at breakfast before shooting. The real magic in À bout de souffle though, is in the cinematography.

The restraints Godard placed on his photographer were extreme and would have shocked Hollywood cinematographers like Mellon and Surtees. Godard wanted the film to be shot like reportage—a documentary. The entire film was to be photographed with available light and handheld. They made a few concessions such as replacing the bathroom lightbulb in the scene above with a more powerful flood. Coutard for his part was well-prepared. His original ambition was to be a photojournalist and he brought experience filming newsreels; this was not unfamiliar ground for him. The camera he used was the Eclair Cameflex 35mm, a camera famous for being easy to operate handheld, but also notorious for the noise it made. It was so noisy in fact that all of the dialog for the entire film was dubbed in later. This turned out to be an advantage because the actors, having never seen the script, didn't actually know their lines; Godard read them out loud during the filming and the actors repeated them.

Photographers talk a lot about gear and methods and often insist that the choice of tools is irrelevant. But this film, and the scene above in particular, is a great study in how the choices of method and tools are manifest in the final product of an art form. As Richard Brody puts it in his book, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, the film would reflect the conditions under which it was made, and that his methods were inseparable from his aesthetic.

The constraints, like all chosen artistic limitations were also liberating. Coutard did not need to contend with microphone booms, light stands, cables, power, best boys, grips, or any of the accouterments of cinematic production. He could simply choose any angle that suited the moment and shoot. The entire project was essentially improvised and the director was ready to accept the trade off of technical perfection for inspired spontaneity:

Wednesday, we shot a scene in direct sunlight with Geva 36. Everyone found it awful. I find it fairly extraordinary. It is the first time that one obliges the film stock to give the maximum of itself by making it do that for which it is not made. It is as if it were suffering by being exploited to the outer limit of its possibilities. Even the film stock, you see, will be out of breath.

The result is a film that today remains as vital and raw as it was at its premiere. It's still easy to sympathize with Bosley Crowther who reviewed the film for the New York Times in 1961:

As sordid as is the French film, “Breathless” (“A Bout de Souffle”), which came to the Fine Arts yesterday—and sordid is really a mild word for its pile-up of gross indecencies—it is withal a fascinating communication of the savage ways and moods of some of the rootless young people of Europe (and America) today. It is emphatically, unrestrainedly vicious, completely devoid of moral tone, concerned mainly with eroticism and the restless drives of a cruel young punk to get along.

It is amazing that it works. À bout de souffle was a commercial success in France and won the 1960 Prix Jean Vigo given to filmmakers of innovative spirit and promise of future achievement. Godard and Coutard made it looks so simple; how and why it works continues to be a topic of contemplation and inspiration. Coutard offered a warning to would-be imitators:

After Jean-Luc did his film, a lot of people thought that you could do anything with anyone and come out with a film. So there were a lot of cinematic experiments that turned out to be catastrophes. These imitators were forgetting that Jean-Luc was not just a guy with talent, he was a guy with genius.

As a side note, Jean Seberg, who played the lead role in this film was the victim of a smear campaign by the FBI's COINTELPRO which became public after Watergate. The FBI spread rumors which ran in Newsweek and the Los Angeles times claiming that her unborn child was fathered by a Black Panther member rather than her husband Romain Gary. You can read a few of the very chilling original FBI documents here. Seberg committed suicide in 1979; Romain Gary committed suicide in 1980.