La Nouvelle Vague proved that there were other paths than those followed by the traditional cinema of the time, and created a new language of film. It broke with cinematic conventions, showing that everything could be questioned, as had already happened with Italian neo-realism before the War. From 1959 to 1969, Raymond Cauchetier was the set-photographer on some of the most important films of the French New Wave. His images captured the invention of a new kind of cinema, with films like À bout de souffle, Une femme est une femme and Jules et Jim; they are historic records in their own right, some of the greatest and most revealing photographic documents ever made of films in progress as they illustrated the revolutionary movement as it happened, on set and on screen.
Anna Karina, “Une femme est une femme”, 1960, directed by Jean-Luc Godard
A series that brings together two worlds I love:
cinema and photography. Shadowing Cinema is about
the unit still photographer: the one who documents everything
that happens on and behind the screen, the one who can capture
the essence of an entire movie in one shot.
“I am a reporter, not an artist. I believe that reportage teaches us more – it’s more important to capture life than constructed situations.”
To this day, Raymond Cauchetier still lives in Paris, in the same apartment where he was born in 1920, having returned there after spending his life under different skies. The first time he left Paris was on a bicycle, in 1940, fleeing the Nazi occupation. In 1943, he became involved with the Corps Franc Pommiès, a large resistance group in southwest France which took part in the 1944 Liberation. After serving in the Third Algerian Infantry Division and travelling to the French Africa, he was eventually sent to the French-Indochina war in the 1950s as part of the press unit of the French Air Force. It was there, in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, where he learned photography as an autodidact, after having been suggested by a superior that he should look for a photographer in the units who might be able to put together a photo album for air service personnel. He appointed himself, bought a Rolleiflex, the camera used in Indochina by all the war correspondents at the time, and started to take pictures of everything he saw around.
“Jules et Jim”, 1962, directed by François Truffaut
François Truffaut and Jeanne Moreau on the set of “Jules et Jim”
His experience in the war no doubt contributed to Cauchetier’s photojournalistic eye that he would later imploy on the movie set when he returned to Paris. His fast-paced, up-close, unstudied style fit perfectly with the New Wave method of hastily assembled scenes, spare intimate moments, and unconstrained filming in the street. A “reporter” photographic style that was far removed from standard set photography and which Cauchetier confessed that he was severely criticized for at the time.
“At the time, set photographers were technicians with ill-defined jobs. They were mostly asked to take a photo from the spot where the movie camera was standing at the end of a scene, and then to make themselves scarce. They got in everyone’s way and cost the producers money as every minute had to be used profitably. Their role as button-pushers brought them a meagre salary that was aligned with that of junior machine operators. Besides, nobody really knew what to do with the photos, which only really interested the script girl trying to get the continuity right. As for my pictures, which belonged to the production company, they stayed in boxes for fifty years,” Cauchetier explained.
Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg on Champs-Élysées during the filming of “À bout de souffle”, 1959,
directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Jean Seberg filming “À bout de souffle”, Hotel de Suede, Paris, 1959
Fortunately, the unit photographer’s contribution, and in particular Raymond Cauchetier’s, to the world of cinema has now been given the credit it deserves. As a great unit photographer often does, Cauchetier could capture the essence of an entire film in a shot. During the filming of Breathless, Cauchetier created enduring moments that Godard’s shoot only implied. There is a scene on the Champs-Élysées, filmed in long shot and from overhead, in which Godard has Seberg give Belmondo a sweet peck on the cheek. Cauchetier brought the actors together to reproduce the scene in a close-up, which became one of the movie’s iconic images despite not existing in the film at all. Cauchetier caught the film’s immediacy and free-form style, as well as the star power, ease and effervescence of Seberg and Belmondo throughout the shoot.
Jean-Luc Godard and cameraman Raoul Coutard on the set of “Une femme est une femme”, Rue Lafayette, Paris
But it is François Truffaut, my favourite New Wave director, whom Cauchetier speaks most highly of in his self-portrait. There he is in the image below, filming the opening establishing shot from Baisers volés (1968). The Eiffel Tower is a recurring image in Truffaut’s films. In 1957 he was even assigned to direct a short film about a man who can see the Eiffel Tower but can not get to it – this was the inspiration for the opening titles of Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows), 1959. On several of his films, Truffaut worked with legendary New Wave cameraman Raoul Coutard, who also shot many of Godard’s reply films. There is a photo of the two of them (the third one below) captured by Cauchetier while filming Antoine et Colette. Truffaut and Coutard always worked quickly with available daylight to get as many set-ups per day as possible. Antoine et Colette was finished in a week. Cauchetier had the ability to catch the innovative techniques, frenetic pace and the exuberance of the actors and crew working on the movies that came to define an era.
François Truffaut with the camera crew on the set of “Baiser volés” (“Stolen Kisses”), 1968, Paris
François Truffaut gives a cigarette to an extra dressed during the filming of “Baisers volés”, 1968
François Truffaut and cameraman Raoul Coutard on the set of “Antoine et Colette”, 1962
Cauchetier also worked with another great French director, Jacques Demy, who appeared in the wake of La Nouvelle Vague, but he stood out from his fellow New Wavers. Mostly uninterested in the formal experimentation that define many of his contemporaries, he distilled his filmmaking style through romantic and deeply emotional storytelling, dispelling the notion that cinema had to be lifelike. Usually known for his colourful movies, which were as open to tragedy as to comedy, Jacques Demy soberly filmed La baie des anges (Bay of Angels), 1963, in black and white. “I wanted to lay bare the workings of a passion,” said the director about the film that has Jeanne Moreau play Jackie, a compulsive gambler who pursues the goal of a doomed and reckless passion. It is a film that stands apart, not in the least because of its aesthetic and style and because of Jeanne Moreau as a vision all cladded in white. Cauchetier’s still photographs are proof of that.
Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann in “La baie des anges”, 1963, directed by Jacques Demy
Jeanne Moreau, “La baie des anges”, 1963
Anouk Aimée in “Lola”, 1961, Nantes, directed by Jacques Demy
A few years back, a book about the photographer of the French Hew Wave was published. Raymond Cauchetier’s New Wave provides a comprehensive look at the photographer’s influence, garnering him much deserved recognition for his role in creating the aesthetic of the Nouvelle Vague.
Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, on the set of “Une femme est une femme”, 1960
François Truffaut and Françoise Dorléac on the set of “La peau doua e”, 1964, Rambouillet,
directed by François Truffaut
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photos: Raymond Cauchetier | James Hyman Gallery