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Memories of Raoul Coutard by Lee Kline

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

Here are some memories of Raoul Coutard, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time.

Raoul Coutard, who photographed some of the most brilliant films of the New Wave, died recently at the age of 92. I don’t like to do obits in this blog, preferring to celebrate the work of the living, yet Coutard’s contribution is simply too significant to ignore. Happily, the colorist Lee Kline has recently published some thoughts about working with Coutard on digital restorations of some of his greatest films on the Criterion website, and here is part of what Kline had to say.

The first time I met Raoul Coutard was in June of 2002. I was in Paris to remaster a few films for Criterion, and one of them was [Jean-Luc] Godard’s Contempt. We had gotten in touch with Coutard and asked him to come in and help us with the color, which he did. He showed up and got right to work. I was awestruck that one of the world’s greatest cinematographers was working with us on what I considered to be one of his masterpieces.

It was not the easiest session for me because I spoke virtually no French and had to rely on people interpreting for me. Coutard worked with the colorist on the color grading: desaturating here, adding a little more contrast there, and bringing Contempt into the digital age with grace and ease.

He was fast, assured, and to the point. Because of the language barrier (or so I thought—more on that later!) we didn’t converse very much, but I got to hear translations of many great stories from the set. I could pretty much understand what he had done from the changes happening on the screen.

A few years later, we asked Coutard to come back in for a few more films. One was Band of Outsiders, and the other one was Costa-Gavras’s Z. We met at Eclair Laboratory, which was in a terrible neighborhood outside of Paris. He didn’t want to go there, and we didn’t want to go there. But Costa-Gavras wanted to go there. We met, and for some reason that I can’t remember, Costa-Gavras couldn’t make it and we had to work on Z without him.

I was with my colleague, who spoke French, and I was telling her that I thought there was something wrong with the color blue that was on the screen, trying to make my case so she could translate to Coutard. He then slowly turned to me and said, ‘What don’t you like about it?’ I was in shock that he never told me he could speak English! Everything then changed, and although his English was limited, I could finally speak directly to him.”

Coutard, famously practical and with a misanthropic streak a mile wide, could be difficult to work with. As recounted in his obituary in The New York Times by William Grimes, Coutard’s “collaboration with Godard ended when France was engulfed by the political events of 1968. ‘Jean-Luc is a fascist of the left, and I am a fascist of the right,’  Coutard told The Guardian. But the two reunited in the early 1980s to make Passion and First Name: Carmen.

He also had a falling-out with [director François] Truffaut, with whom he had collaborated on Shoot the Piano Player and The Soft Skin. The Bride Wore Black (1967) was their last film together. ‘I had the ridiculous idea to quit smoking at the same time we were filming the movie,’ Mr. Coutard told The Houston Chronicle. ‘I was very unbearable and very unpleasant, so we parted ways after that.’”

But here, readying is work for release in DVD and Blu-ray format, Coutard seems to have struck up a real accord with Kline, and it’s a pleasure to have this glimpse of the gifted artist in his last years, just as cantankerous as ever, yet assiduously making sure that his films made the jump to digital with all their pictorial values intact.

You can read the entire article by clicking here or on the image above.

Jean-Luc Godard on Film Criticism, 1963

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Here’s a remarkable interview with director Jean-Luc Godard shot for French television in 1963, just after the release of his masterpiece Le Mépris (Contempt).

It’s both fascinating and a bit sad that Godard describes film criticism of his era as essentially an “honest” field, noting that critics are always “sincere,” whether he agrees with them or not, compared to today, when film criticism has become primarily a fan-based enterprise, and the daily critics are more under pressure than ever before to conform to commercial demands. Godard, of course, started out as a critic before he became a filmmaker, and as he admits in this clip, some of his early reviews were often “cruel” towards certain filmmakers and their works.

But at the same time, he doesn’t seem to mind the same slings and arrows when they’re directed at him, just so long as the critics really mean what they say. Godard also speaks frankly of the commercial pressures brought to bear on him by producer Joseph E. Levine during the making of the film, and demonstrates enormous grace under pressure in the process. It’s a rare glimpse into the mind of one of the world’s most innovative and often controversial directors; absolutely essential viewing.

Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963)

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Has there ever been a more beautiful, more tragic film than Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963)? If so, I can’t think of one offhand. It’s also one of the most trenchant examinations of a relationship in collapse, as well as offering a behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of filmmaking, featuring no less a personage than director Fritz Lang as himself, trying to make an intelligent film adaptation of The Odyssey, despite the continual interference of his distinctly unpleasant producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance).

Seeking a more commercial approach to the material, Prokosch hires screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to do a rewrite. Accepting the assignment, Paul loses the affection of his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), who realizes that he is selling out, simply to make cash on a project which has no artistic integrity. As for his part, Lang refuses to take sides on any of this, and watches as the film, and the marriage, both slide toward the abyss. He’s seen it all before. All of this is set to a compelling, ravishingly romantic musical score by composer Georges Delerue.

Some have critiqued the film recently for its basic plot premise, calling the idea of “selling out” antiquated — after all, isn’t that what you’re supposed to do these days, sell out to the highest bidder? Maybe not, suggests Godard, who even today, continues to make deeply personal and idiosyncratic films designed only to satisfy his own needs and desires, and still finds an audience for them, nonetheless — perhaps “selling out” is just as undesirable as it always has been, a recipe for artistic and personal bankruptcy.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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