Most of them are gone: Chabrol, Malle, Rohmer, Resnais, Rouch, Rossif, Reichenbach and, of course, their godfathers: Melville, Bresson and Franju. Varda and Rivette (both now 87) have made films in the last decade, and Godard, at 84, with 118 credits according to IMDb, is unstoppable. (Some pray he’s immortal, while others would prefer to wrest his 3-D iPhone rigs from his 84-year-old mitts.) François Truffaut, Godard’s ally-turned-nemesis, died way too early at 52. Two great New Wave cinematographers, Henri Decaë and Néstor Almendros, are gone, but two more are still with us: Raoul Coutard, 90, and Willy Kurant, 81. Agnès Guillemot, an editor mainly for Godard, but also with some Truffaut credits, died a decade ago; Suzanne Baron, 88, lives.
But no survivor of the “Nouvelle Vague” has the longevity of its best known “photographe de plateau” (set still photographer), Raymond Cauchetier. In fragile health for many years, still living with his Japanese wife, Kaoru, in the fifth-floor walk-up where he was born, Cauchetier is ever born anew.
In March 2012, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hosted an exhibition of Cauchetier’s New Wave photographs in its Beverly Hills headquarters. Cauchetier made a generous donation of this work to the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library.
Several other museum and gallery shows followed, including one at the Fitterman gallery in Santa Monica. And now, concurrent with a new exhibition at the James Hyman Gallery in London, the first English-language book of his work, Raymond Cauchetier’s New Wave, has just been published. Before this monograph, there was only a small, self-published French edition with scant text.
Philippe Garner of Christie’s provides biographical background of the man who came to French cinema not from any formal studies or experience in the arts, but as a photojournalist who was self-taught in the early 1950s on the battlegrounds of the Indochina War. A few years after Cauchetier documented the elaborate temple ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, he and fellow conflict photographer Raoul Coutard shot illustrations for quickie French “photo-romans” produced by Hubert Serra. Through Serra, Cauchetier met movie producer Georges de Beauregard. In a last-ditch attempt to salvage his company after releasing several flops, De Beauregard hired Godard to direct a very low-budget film. Photographed by Coutard, with still photography by Cauchetier, this shot in the dark turned out to be A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). The rest, they say, is …
In his introductory essay, Cauchetier discusses Breathless, offering anecdotes of the on- and off-set hijinks and describing how his work in photo-reportage informed the intimate and improvisatory way he photographed for the movies. But his most revealing disclosure is not about any movie, but about a film stock. Both he and Coutard used a new high-speed Ilford film that was rated at ASA 400. According to Cauchetier, the black-and-white 35 mm. motion-picture negative used in Europe was rated at ASA 25, four stops slower; it was available in standard 300-meter rolls, whereas a new Ilford film came for motion-picture production only in 30-meter rolls — yielding a running time of about 1 minute. Cauchetier recounts how this film stock helped create the New Wave:
It is difficult for me to sum up in a few lines what I think about the New Wave. Countless books have been written on the subject. I’ll content myself with expressing an opinion to do with the camera, an opinion I consider both important and original: The thing that more than anything enabled the New Wave to come into existence was the ready availability of 35mm Ilford 400 ASA black-and-white negative film.
Eastman Kodak had introduced 320-ASA Tri-X film (5233) in 35mm rolls in 1954, but perhaps it was not affordable for low-budget filmmakers in Europe. But Cauchetier’s point is well considered. Many of his stills reveal a few mushroom floods as the only lighting units, and even in later 1960s French color films, there are only a few dichroic lamps for camera fill on most daylight exterior scenes. Most New Wave movies were shot on real locations, not on studio sets where traditional Fresnel lensed lighting units were available. As an aside, Cauchetier reflects that the often rapid and disjointed editorial style of early New Wave films was as much a function of the short film rolls as of iconoclastic creativity.
Here is a four-minute slideshow of Cauchetier’s New Wave photos from a recent tribute at Salon de Photo:
My past posts about Raymond Cauchetier have featured not only his movie work, but also his Indochina photos from the 1950s as well as the project that consumed almost three decades of his life (until the rigors of travel became too much for his health): thousands of medium-format color photos of the sculpture of Romanesque churches, from Scandinavia to Coptic Egypt. He took these during annual spring and summer travels with Kaoru. Though these images are not yet fully appreciated by the French (whose churches are the ones Cauchetier most often documented), these intimate photographs may ultimately be as enduring as his frozen frames of movie stars. I have written about every phase of Cauchetier’s career for this blog, and it has been a joy for me to see ever-broader recognition of his work develop, culminating with this handsome monograph of the New Wave, which contains many previously unpublished photographs.
After the May 1968 political and social upheaval in Paris, Cauchetier decided, at almost 50, that he had accomplished what he could in cinema. He was prescient. The New Wave filmmakers continued to make movies after preventing the opening of the Palais curtain at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, but increasingly, the bonds that had held them together, however loosely, frayed. They went in separate directions, especially Godard and Truffaut (almost predictably, in an acrimonious epistolary rift). Cauchetier had photographed both of them on their major movies.
A wonderful documentary, Two in the Wave, follows the rise of these two icons, from their earliest days as Cahiers du Cinema critics up to their ugly and sad parting. The latter part of the story is omitted from this trailer for the Lorber Films DVD release:
Cauchetier photographed the heyday of the New Wave. By the time of its slow demise, he was off on his decades-long project of beauty and inspiration, an encyclopedic visual poem of the grandeur of European ecclesiastical sculpture. This mesmerizing work calls out for another book. We’ll see how long it takes for the culture to catch up with him.
Considering the widespread ignorance of the vulnerability of digital imagery, the French government likely does not yet understand — but will, I hope, soon appreciate — what a treasure it has in the film record Cauchetier has made not just of Europe’s 1960s cinematic glory, but also of its millennia-old sculptural art.
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