Raymond Cauchetier’s “New Wave” — Part One

ONE

He’s a world traveler who has created photo books on the ruins of Anghor Wat in Cambodia, and of the tympana sculptures in Romanesque churches from Norway to Coptic Egypt—but he lives in the same apartment in Paris’ 12th arrondissement where he was born in 1920. He is a photo autodidact who did not acquire his first camera until he was over thirty years old—yet he became the set photographer for many of the French New Wave films from 1958 to 1968. At a time when most photojournalists were shooting with 35mm Leicas—he chose a much larger format 2 ¼ Rolliflex. He is, even today, according to writer Marc Vernet, unknown by the general public in France—anonymous, even though he created dozens of the most iconic movie photographs of that era, images that are embedded in the film consciousness of generations of his countrymen. He fell into motion picture set photography by an accident of geography—but abandoned it when he became discontented with the poor remuneration and the struggle to control his own work. This happened during a time when the movement’s Young Turk critic/directors were defining and practicing the “politique des auteurs” for themselves and for marginalized American filmmakers—yet he, a “stills man,” possessed little authorship of his creations. These are some of the intriguing dichotomies in the career of Raymond Cauchetier.

When he was serving in the French Air Force in Indochina in the early 50s, he began documenting the activities of his own unit with his new Rollei, not out of a compelling interest in photography, but because the unit had no assigned photographer. He published a photography book of time spent at the Ton Son Nhut air base, north of Saigon. In it he recorded France’s changing fortunes in the last years of its colonial era ---  a decade before an equally futile American venture was undertaken on the very same ground and in the very same air.

“The Air War in Indochina” by Raymond Cauchetier.
Fighters before a dawn raid.

After France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accords of 1954, when France surrendered control of its former colony, Cauchetier remained in Southeast Asia. A book of his photos was soon published in Paris, in1955:

Cauchetier was photographing at the Anghor Wat Temple complex in mid-1957 when he met director Marcel Camus (Black Orpheus) who had arrived in Cambodia to film Mort en Fraude (Fugitive in Saigon). Cauchetier’s friend Jean Hougron, who had written the eponymous novel which won the Grand Prix Roman from the Académie Française in 1953, asked Cauchetier to assist Camus in securing locations for the film. The director then offered Cauchetier the job of set photographer in order to save money by not flying in a more experienced one from France. Ah, the accidents of time and place, how they come to shape our lives.

Back in France, Cauchetier sought work as a photojournalist but was hired by Hubert Serra, publisher of a series of then popular photo-novels. (In Italy they were known as fotoromanzi, the subject of Fellini’s The White Sheik). It was through Serra that Cauchetier met both film producer Georges de Beauregard and emerging cinematographer Raoul Coutard, also an army veteran of the Indochina War. After the Cannes Festival success of Truffaut’s first feature, Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows), Beauregard recruited Coutard and Cauchetier to work on Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). So began Cauchetier’s immersion in the surge of the French New Wave.

Unlike many set photographers whose mandate it is to cover the film’s production (mainly the actors) for publicity in the release market, Cauchetier viewed the proceedings through the eyes of a journalist and an anthropologist, especially as he saw and recorded the unorthodox work methods of Godard. Even considering the unbridled idiosyncrasies of emerging directors such as Chabrol, Malle, and Rivette, Godard’s habits were singular. He had no set script for either the crew or actors to follow. He would meet them in a café in the morning and present them with that day’s work, most of which he had written on scraps of paper prior to their arrival. This stood in stark contrast to Francois Truffaut, whose love of literature even as a wayward kid (think of Antoine Doinel’s candlelit altar to Balzac in The 400 Blows) involved the actors and crew in the realization of the screenplay.

Cauchetier's photos reveal an artist’s eye at least as interested in the filmmaking process and the behind the scenes relationships of the crew as he was in the job of documenting the actors’ performances. His photographs consistently tell a story that gives much insight to both the formal style of the New Wave, and to the up-from-the-bootstraps camaraderie and hardscrabble improvisations of these no-budget movies that today have become chapter headings in film history. Cauchetier recorded the production of films such as Jules and Jim, The Soft Skin, Stolen Kisses, Lola, Landru, Adieu Philippine, Cleo 5 to 7, A Woman is a Woman, Shoot the Piano Player, and Bay of Angels. They are all included in his book Photos de Cinéma, published by Image France editions ---  so far in French only, and unavailable in this country.

But it can be found at:

Image France Editions – Photos de Cinéma link

If you have a PayPal account you can order online and shipment arrives in a few days from France. Looking through this rich trove of photos is, for me and for anyone who sees the New Wave as more than a very old blip on their mental movie screen, a trip both behind the curtain and a ticket to a front row seat to experience again those moments that are seared onto our cinematic brains. The rest of this essay will look at some of these photographs, with comments based on interviews with Cauchetier by critic Marc Vernet, writer of the book’s text, included in the introduction. Biographical details are also from New Wave writer/historian Richard Brody. His article about Cauchetier is in the Winter 2009 issue of Aperture magazine and he, as well as my own email correspondence with Cauchetier himself, is the source for much of what follows.

TWO

Breathless is the signature film of the New Wave and Cauchetier captured not only its key "on screen" moments, but he created images that lay bare the bones of this seminal work.

Here again is the famous image on the book’s cover.

This is not actually taken from a setup in the film but is a candid moment that Cauchetier captured of the two young, carefree actors between takes. He explained to me that he does not consider himself an “artist,” just a "witness." This modesty must extend back to his photojournalism days in Indochina. In fact, this photo has all the immediacy of a Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson or Doisneau image—Belmondo’s hands in his pockets, a dangling cigarette, his right foot caught just before it touches the ground, and Seberg’s radiant, essentially American insouciance --- not a hint of the darkness that would overtake her and end in her suicide—that defines the dawn of this era in French cinema.

Here is a photo that shows how their stroll down the Champs-Elysee was filmed as a follow shot, without any gawkers to disrupt the action.

Belmondo and Seberg walk next to a 2CV. Director Godard follows at far left of frame behind a three-wheeled mail cart. Coutard sits inside, a small port cut in front for the camera lens, filming with his Éclair CM3 ---  a kind of rolling “blind.”

In a scene in a photographer’s studio, the two actors are again filmed by Coutard who now sits in a wheelchair.

The bionic dolly and the auteur dolly grip.

This shot has an aspect that would have delighted Man Ray or Magritte. Coutard’s head merges with the CM3’s magazine and his feet seem one with the device’s wheels, a kind of bionic, surrealist cinema machine. Godard holds the script in his left hand. Cauchetier says that Godard is feeding the actors the scene’s dialogue (which he has likely written only minutes earlier) as he serves as an “auteur” dolly grip.

Godard was, even on this first film, the scourge of producers, as he never seemed to have a set plan for the day’s work. Here is a photo of Seberg, Belmondo, and Godard talking over coffee before the beginning of Seberg’s first day of filming.

An "explication de texte" but Godard does all the explicating.

This is an image straight out of a Brassai or Doineau café scene, one of those private moments caught by a snooping and alert photographer. Belmondo has already been shooting for one week and his look of something between dismay and boredom speaks volumes about how he is reacting to Godard’s likely cafe-intellectual rant. Vernet says that he’s likely wondering about his parked car. Belmondo, who was an ex-pugilist, a man of instinct, already a veteran of nine films, is not likely in any event, to be tuned into Godard’s verbal frequency. In the lower right corner someone is reading a copy of the film magazine Positif, rival to Cahiers du Cinema, house organ for Godard and Truffaut. What can be more French than reading about CINEMA in a bistro? Seberg, who was discovered a few years previously by the tyrannical Otto Preminger and cast for his film of Saint Joan, is intent on covering her mouth, like Belmondo, perhaps to avoid asking a question about the scene (her training was much in the style of “ The Method”). There seems little doubt that she is not quite buying Godard’s hand-waving pitch of auteurial intent.

As I look closely through this volume of Cauchetier’s photos, it is clear that there are, in addition to the expected star and production shots, many that are incisive, human moments, real life caught by a sensitive, always alert eye.

Here is a lighter moment with its own story. Coutard’s camera is perched high shooting over Belmondo’s shoulder.

Clearly, the open window of the hotel room is the principal light source as the overexposed exterior and the softly enveloping backlight testify. There appears, possibly, to be a double scoop light just over Godard’s head. Seberg seems intent on looking through her script pages. We know from the film itself that the magazine Belmondo is reading is full of nude models. This photo captures a moment from the lengthy hotel scene that is, as in Contempt which Godard will film three years later, the centerpiece of the film. We are in room 12 of the Hôtel de Suéde on the left bank. (In case you are up for a romantic getaway along with a piece of film history). Most of the key crew is present in the photo except for camera operator Claude Beausoleil who is, Cauchetier tells us, in the WC loading a magazine. The unblimped CM3 must sound like a coffee grinder (Haskell Wexler at one time owned many of them), which may be why soundman Jacques Maumont is absent. Many of Cauchetier’s photos from Breathless feature an unblimped camera, testament to the fact that many of the early New Wave films were dialogue dubbed in postproduction. This scene, which is the most dialogue intensive in the film, must have been a challenge for post-synching. Here is an excerpt, all rushing talk, with no singular dramatic focus, no connection to an underlying plot, just two people in a room engaged in a dialogue dance that exemplifies the early phase of the New Wave.

And here is the final scene of Breathless. Belmondo is shot in the back by the police. He runs down a nearly deserted street with the camera traveling in pursuit. He falls, a few legs crowding around him. The film ends on isolated intercut close-ups of Belmondo and Seberg, no other faces in the frame.

But here is what the street looked like as they were filming that moment.

Dying alone in a crowd of onlookers.

This is the famous shot of Belmondo, Godard standing next to his left leg while Coutard handholds the CM3 pointed down at him, in a close-up from Seberg’s POV. The two cop actors that shot him are flanking figures along with a few of the crew. But the street is full of onlooker “non-combatants,” many of them curious children. Whether there were no ADs and PAs for crowd control or the crew was too small to do it or, more likely, Godard had not decided where to film the scene so the company had no permit —the scene is chaos. Notice that Seberg is nowhere in sight.

This is the complementary angle of the scene toward Seberg. Belmondo is not off camera, prone on the ground for Seberg’s eyeline and emotional interaction (this is the last shot of the film), only the slate propped at Godard’s feet. Coutard sits in a chair  (likely recruited from the adjacent cafe) shooting up at Seberg as lots of kids look on and a young man, seemingly disinterested, reads a newspaper behind her.

I find this photo to be one of the most haunting from the French New Wave. For the generations of cineastes who have grown up with this last moment of Breathless freeze-framed in their cinematic consciousness, this image reveals the casual and improvisational reality of a new cinema, that even fifty years after the fact, seems fresh—caught on the fly, yet trapped in the timeless bell jar of Godard’s “truth at 24 frames per second.”

(Part two will focus on Cauchetier’s work with Truffaut)

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