Raoul Coutard, Z, and the French New Wave

 

On the otherwise uneventful day of November 8th, 2016, media blew up over the passing of famous cinematographer Raoul Coutard at age 92. Coutard is known primarily for his involvement with the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) movement of the 1960s, especially for his collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.  Many of their most well-known films from this period, including Breathless, Alphaville, and Jules and Jim were filmed by Coutard.

The lasting influence of the Nouvelle Vague cannot be understated. The origins of the French New Wave in film journalism offered aesthetic criticism and appraisals for directors like Orson Welles and Jean Renoir. When the movement leaders began making films, they would experiment with their movies through narrative structure, visual design, and philosophical/political themes. The success of the movement helped set the stage for experimental filmmakers internationally, allowing directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and George Lucas opportunities to work with relative freedom in Hollywood. Popular contemporary directors, including Tarantino and Anderson (all of the different Andersons, to be honest) continue to look to the movies of Godard and others for inspiration.

In these films, Coutard’s distinctive use of long shots, unconventional lighting, and generally atypical camerawork helped set him apart from others of his time. Coutard’s background as a photojournalist and cameraman for documentaries helped give a sense a realism to his work, even when the events occurring in the film were absurd. Because of this highly unique style, Godard worked with Coutard 14 or his first 15 works, and later reunited with him in the ‘80s.

Although Coutard’s workload slowed following the end of the Nouvelle Vague as a mainstream movement, he continued to work on other important/influential works, including Costa Gavras’ Z (1969). This film, playing at the IU Cinema on December 11th, is an adaptation of Vassilis Vassilikos’ novel of the same name, which in turn is based on the assassination of Greek leftist politician Grigoris Lambrakis and the events that followed. Although a fictionalized account, the movie doesn’t intend to be inaccurate; within first couple of minutes the movie makes clear that “Any similarity to real persons and events is not coincidental. It is intentional.” Produced in France, Z quickly joined the list of works banned in Greece during the military junta of 1967-1974. Notably, a lot of the people involved with the production, including Vassilikos and soundtrack composer Mikis Theodorakis, were imprisoned or exiled from Greece, due either to their involvement with this work, or because of left-wing beliefs.

Z walks a thin line: it wants to capture the political climate of Greece at the time without foregoing entertainment value; it also aims to remain humorous/satirical while addressing the serious repercussions of Lambrakis’ death, using a large cast and oddly structured (although still mostly chronological) narrative to tell the story.

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Achieving all of this is not a simple task, which is why Raoul Coutard’s visuals are such an important part of the movie. His experience with documentary filmmaking helps keep the film grounded in reality, even during the more absurd moments. The pace of the film is determined primarily through the shot duration and camera movement; low-intensity scenes use more longshots and rely less on movement, and vice versa. While these aren’t unconventional tactics, Coutard uses them with ease. His ability to determine the weight of a given scene is extended to the way he can so quickly develop the many characters in the movie.

However, the true strength of Coutard is not in any specific stylistic choices, but in the wide variety he brings visually. From the vibrant colors, to the camera placement and movement, to the length of the shots, Z is a culmination of the many filming techniques Coutard had developed since he began working in the industry.

The result is a magnificent film which manages to make its message clear while remaining historically significant and entertaining. Made in a time of extreme political unrest and disenfranchisement, Z remains distinct among a sea of other political films dealing with similar topics, and its interesting style continues to generate new audiences for the film.

Be sure to watch Z at the IU Cinema on Sunday, December 11, at 6:30 PM.