The films shot by legendary DP Raoul Coutard amount to a roll call of the French New Wave’s most distinctive and innovative cinematography: Breathless, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, Contempt, Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her—and that’s just for starters. Since his more recent work with Philippe Garrel, Coutard has supervised digital transfers for the Criterion Collection and now a restoration of the The 317th Platoon (La 317ème Section, 65), Pierre Schoendoerffer’s account of a doomed French unit in the Indochina War. Prior to filmmaking, Coutard, 87, was a photographer with the French military during the war (some of which work has been exhibited and published). He chatted with FILM COMMENT in advance of tonight’s screening of The 317th Platoon at the French Institute / Alliance Française.
Raoul Coutard (L) and Georges Liron (R) while shooting The 317th Platoon
© Jean Garcenot
Given your own wartime experience, what aspects did you most want to capture in The 317th Platoon?
When we filmed it, it was already the end of the war, and the impression of what [the soldiers] lived through and how it ended was quite sad, and there was also a very strong solidarity. Those were really the main two things that we wanted to portray and capture with the cinematography and the atmosphere of the film.
The nighttime shots in the jungle are striking. They use so little light.
The way that we did it was very similar to Breathless in a way because we really wanted to do it the way it actually was at the time, which was with no lights. It was done with nothing—a handheld camera at night, and the only light that you see is done with a magnesium torch. It was very economical to shoot these scenes because it was a very simple way of setting everything up.
You get a strong sense of the claustrophobia of the jungle.
The problem with the jungle is, the biggest enemy is man, and the only way you know when there are men walking in the jungle is because suddenly there’s complete silence: all the noise of the animals disappears. And if you stay there for the while, suddenly the sounds of insects come back—monkeys, and then birds, and everything. You see that scene in the movie, we wanted to recreate it, when suddenly they’re walking and the silence appears again and you know there’s an enemy coming.
What did the restoration of The 317th Platoon involve?
It was more work for the other people than for me because they had to find all the little pieces of the film that were missing that were exactly the same quality of the rest of the film. What I did really work a lot on was the grading [l’étalonnage], which means to restore the copy the way the way everything was when it was shot. And the problem for me now is that they’re using digital techniques. So I was really struggling: do we keep it the way I thought it was at the time and it was shot, or do we use the advantage of what digital can bring to go further. That was a very new thing.
Have you ever shot anything on video or on digital? What do you think of the digital image?
For me, digital and using digital camera and digital technique is completely just like a tool, like, you know, we went from black and white to color, from color to cinemascope. So for me digital is just a tool to show the emotions in cinema. What’s good is that of course you don’t pay as much money, because you don’t have to go through the labs, and then the producer wants to gain time. But in a way it doesn’t matter, saving time or money. What really matters is being able to raise the emotion of the image.
It’s amazing that so soon after The 317th Platoon, you shot films with such varied looks as Alphaville, Pierrot le Fou, and later on Made in USA.
You know, it’s very specific to each filmmaker. For example, with The 317th Platoon, it’s telling you a story. Then you go to Pierrot, it’s working with Godard—it’s not much like a story in the same sense. Also with Pierrot le Fou we were using a new technique which was a film strip with two holes [perfots], two sides, for example. But also in between each film there is time, so you have time to change to the next one. And it’s the kind of profession where you actually want to change, and that’s inventing.
Did you ever sketch out your ideas? Like, for example, Made in U.S.A., did you try out ideas before the actual shooting?
You have to know that of course what is already very special with Made in U.S.A. is that you’re making a film with Jean-Luc Godard. Each time he makes a film, Godard wants to demonstrate how cinema is made. So, for example, Made in U.S.A., he wanted to make two films at the same time, two versions at the same time, to show that you can totally change the way you make a film. For example, in the end of the film, I was also shooting the next film, which was the beginning of 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. Also, working with Godard is at the same time complicated and simple, because you have to shoot everything in order. Because there’s no script, he’s writing it every day.
Who do you think are the great cinematographers in film history?
You know, I had no idea what a cinematographer was when I made my first film [La passe du diable, aka The Devil’s Pass, 58). I was a photographer. If I had known what this profession was when [Pierre] Schoendoerffer [director of The Devil’s Pass and The 317th Platoon] asked me, I would never have done it.
Luckily you made the wrong choice!
The thing that happened on that first film, it was a very complicated one, and I had no idea what I was doing. It was made in color, first of all, which was a new technique, and it was done in cinemascope, which very few people knew how to shoot in because the technique belonged to Fox. And then also it was shot over eight months in Afghanistan. And I would never see the rushes come back, I would just see telegrams with numbers.
Along with your collaborations with Schoendoerffer, Godard, and others, you also worked a lot with camera operator Georges Liron. How did that come about?
We met when we were in Indochine in the military service together, in the press. I also had another assistant called Jean Garcenot who was also in the military in the same branch. And so it would allow people who didn’t like me, or who would always criticize, to say that I was a parachutist and a fascist.
I want to add something else that’s very important to me. I always find extraordinary the quality of American cinematographers. When I got the prize in Hollywood at the ASC [The American Society of Cinematographers, ], it was for me the most important prize I got.
What cinematographers whose work you admire come to mind?
One that came to my mind first, but there are many others, is Douglas Slocombe because of the quality of The Great Gatsby. I really loved the cinematography of A River Runs Through It. But he [the cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot] is French!