It is one of the most famous images in all of cinema, this Breathless kiss by Jean Seberg bestowed on Jean Paul Belmondo. If much of film history can be circumscribed by the simple idea of “boy meets girl,” this film by Jean Luc Godard is not only the first and seminal film of the French New Wave, it also refracts back onto the whole tradition of American film noir that inspired it. The trope of two lovers alone against the world is the single most told-tale in all of cinema. It transcends any passing moment that tries to frame it; this simple theme stands out against the surrounding cultural persiflage like hewn stone sculpture. But this cinematic buss is not taken from a scene in Breathless; it was set up by photographe de plateau Raymond Cauchetier
Over the past year, I have written a number of essays about this extraordinary French photographer, an intensely focused man who even now, in his early nineties, radiates the youthful enthusiasm that itself was the essence of the French films of the 60s, movies on which he worked as set photographer. Last March, I wrote a three-part essay about his work on those films.
And last December, I presented a two part Christmas Nativity and Epiphany essay about the twenty year photo-sojourn he and his wife, Kaoru, have made to photograph the Romanesque sculptures of Europe’s major and minor churches. I proposed to Raymond that I conclude this sculptural trilogy with another essay, this one for Valentine’s Day—images of the biblical Genesis story of the first two lovers, Adam and Eve. This great foundation myth of Western culture embodies all the themes of love, temptation, “sin” and loss that have been the essence of our culture’s literature—and in the 20th century, of our motion pictures. What more unlikely but perfect mash-up across many centuries could there be than photographs of those lovers hewn in timeless stone—and an ephemeral moment caught in silvered emulsion from a New Wave film? All of the photographs in this piece are by Raymond Cauchetier.
A voluptuous, naked Eve holding an apple in her left hand, as the serpent lurks in the upper right, is one of the most famous of all the sculptures from Autun.
Anouk Aimee in Jacques Demy’s Lola looks much like Eve fleeing the serpent.
Shortly after the Christmas essays were posted, a young filmmaker asked me why I have such a fascination with these Romanesque sculptures photographed by Cauchetier. At first I was flummoxed, then said simply, “Because they are beautiful! Does there need to be anything more?” Later, I started to parse this question in my own head. Sometimes a challenge, or even an innocent question, can have the benefit of making you think something through—something that you have until then just accepted.
I was raised Roman Catholic, and statues in church were always present as part of the liturgy. Remembering them in retrospect, most of them were (as art) kitsch—but aesthetic edification was not their reason for being. It was only a few years later, when I spent my Junior year studying in Europe, that I began to understand the inextricable link between the Church’s historic need for icons as inspiration for veneration and prayer, and the concomitant human drive for self-expression in art, a force that drives the soul of man as much as his worship of God. The Church and the Papacy dictated the themes of art for centuries. But the artists began to define themselves through their work during the Renaissance, even though the dictates for religious subject matter held nominal sway for several more centuries.
The story of man’s spiritual evolution was conveyed in tales from the Bible, and none of these tales is more elemental than that of Adam and Eve. The anonymous sculptors of the Romanesque era were believers, no doubt, in the literal truth of these stories. But it is not too speculative to imagine that, however anonymous these artists are to us now, they were singular in their own minds. Gislebertus proudly identified himself over the portal at Autun.
One of the most sensuous stone renderings of Adam and Eve comes from the great church of Vezelay in the Yonne department of Burgundy, one of the four major departure points for the Santiago Compostella medieval pilgrimage trail.
The intricate twinings of the Tree of Knowledge act as a lovers’ bower for this intimate scene.
Truffaut’s much-underrated film La Peau Douce contains one of the most intimate and lyrical moments between lovers in all of French film. The gentle, but academic Jean Desailly is finally alone with the airline hostess, Françoise Dorleac, in a motel room. The scene has all the elements of a tawdry adultery cliché, yet is one of the emblematic scenes of French cinema.
In looking at many of the photos that Cauchetier made of off the set moments, one of the most tender is of Truffaut offering to light Dorleac’s cigarette. Regarded as even more beautiful than her sister, Catherine Deneuve, her smile is infused for us with poignancy, knowing that in a very few years she would be dead from an auto accident. Script held in his left hand, Truffaut reaches to touch her right hand with his right.
In a sculpture from a capital of Neuilly en Donjon, Adam's right hand touches his neck even as Eve's right one reaches to pluck an apple, while the interloping serpent leers.
There is no other image that so defines the movie woman of the 60s as the seemingly casual photograph below.
Cauchetier’s portrait of an elfin Seberg on the set of Breathless catches the myriad qualities that define her character, a young American woman in Paris: innocent but self-willed, intensely but casually sexy, woman and child—the very, very French wafting cigarette smoke infusing the scene with the existential urgency of the café culture. She is an Eve of the mid-twentieth century and the amorous fantasy of that generation’s college men. Yet she, like Dorleac, would be dead, a suicide decades before her time. Her real-life Adam, ex-husband, novelist Romain Gary, killed himself a year later.
Raymond Cauchetier’s quiet but close observation on set during takes, as well as his “caught moments” between setups, moments that seem to create their own movie within the movie, carry over into his photography of these ancient stone figures. They seem animated, alive, just caught by the camera in a moment, frozen forever.
An unabashed, nude Eve, looking straight out at the viewer, her twined locks reaching down to her waist, dominates a capital of the parish church of Targon, near Bordeaux. She is the most self-contained, most self-aware of all the Eve figures that Raymond sent me. In a note, he explained that during the time of the Romanesque, the clergy of the Church had a conflicted view of “woman.” On the one hand, she is the mother of Jesus Christ; on the other, she is the temptress who led a naive and credulous Adam toward excommunication from Eden. This Eve, and Jean Seberg in Breathless standing over the body of the dying Belmondo, embody this duality.
This theme of the seductive and dangerous woman leading a man to ruin, the flip side of idealized Valentine Day lovers, oozes throughout film history: from Louise Brooks’ Lulu, Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Kathleen Turner’s Matty Walker in Body Heat, to Sharon Stone’s Catherine Trammel in Basic Instinct. One of the most ruthless of all is Jeanne Moreau’s Julie Kohler from Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black.
In a wondrously modeled capital from the church of Saint Gaudens, the Tree of Knowledge is wrapped with the choking convolutions of the serpent. Adam and Eve are at opposite sides, looking blankly out into a void, unable to see or communicate with each other. This is a particularly humane sculpture, almost modern, both in its emotional alienation and in the reductive straight lines of Adam and Eve’s arms and torsos. Adam holds his left hand to his throat, a leitmotif according to Raymond. Above them are foliated swirls that suggest the soon to be lost Garden of Eden.
Not all of the Romanesque Adam and Eve figures depict the moment of imminent loss. In the church of Dinan there is a rough-hewn couple: Eve lost in a kind of ecstatic dance, while Adam sits a supporting hand extended to balance her contraposto pose. This may be a pre-lapsarian interlude with no ominous serpent yet arrived on the scene. It is a dynamic scene, almost cinematic.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is a brightly top-lit figure of Eve, whose deeply incised strands of hair seem to merge with her full body garment. Singularly, she is not nude nor is Adam whose profile falls in shadows. Eve’s hands are pushing toward us, palms out, as if to reject the serpent’s proffered apple. Her face is like a mask of enveloping distress, not unlike the famous Munch painting of The Scream.
It may seem like a big reach to discuss 800 year-old ecclesiastical stone sculptures as if they were characters in a contemporary film drama—but one can argue that all art depicting the human narrative is, in a way, coeval. It is only ignorance or willful hubris, it seems to me, that does not see a skein of common humanity in all art, irrespective of medium or period. As a filmmaker, one must reach out and embrace all the arts, if for no other reason, than because cinema is the most inclusive of them all. Self-referential movies that live only within the frame of their own awareness and which to not connect to the larger human narrative may be entertaining, a way to kill time, but they are junk food. Of course, some believe that all movies are junk food.
Raymond Cauchetier has had many incarnations as a photographer. His camera lens has followed his mind and his heart. It makes him an elusive artist in terms of “marketing.” But last summer the James Hyman Gallery in London mounted a major exhibition of his New Wave photography, some of which is shown in this essay. Here are thumbnails of twenty-one of them.
The gallery produced a ten-minute video with commentary by Hyman, Philippe Garner of auction house Christie’s, and Jonathan Romney, critic of the newspaper, The Independent. They discuss his decade-long work as “photographe de plateau.”
After a decade of work in the New Wave, Raymond Cauchetier walked away from movies as casually as he had walked in; however, he brought to his subsequent photography of Romanesque sculpture the eye of a dramatist, of an artist searching out character using revelatory light. His photographs of these ancient stone figures come to life across the centuries; and they constitute an as yet unfulfilled patrimony to France.
Last October, my wife Carol, and her sister Betty, had lunch with the Cauchetiers at the Restaurant Petit Troo on the Avenue Daumesnil; the Cauchetiers dine there almost every day. Carol and Betty had stopped in Paris before heading south toward Clermont-Ferrand, to begin yet another leg of the Santiago Campostella pilgrimage trail. Though he and Kaoru were not able to join them on the walk, Raymond knew every church and chapel along the way and he gave the two sisters suggestions of what not to miss. As they were all sitting at lunch taking what Carol calls “happy snaps” of each other, Raymond asked for Carol's camera, a small Kodak “easy share” digital. He looked down at the tablecloth, sun streaming in the window, and took this picture. But Raymond emailed me that he thought Carol took it. After a very French "analysis" of seating positions around the table and angle of the sun coming in the window-- I'm sticking with my story. It's Raymond's photo. Sorry, mon ami. I recognize the "eye."