Raymond Cauchetier’s “New Wave” — Part Two

ONE

Catherine beats Jules and Jim.

The race itself lasts barely half a minute, but this photo of Catherine at the end of her sprint across a pedestrian railroad bridge, ahead of both her suitors, Jules and Jim, is arguably the single most iconic image illustrating the hell-bent, headlong energy of the French New Wave. It was made by Raymond Cauchetier on the same 2 ¼ x 2 ¼ Rollei that he had bought a decade earlier while serving in the French Air Force in Indochina.

In the low budget world of French New Wave cinema, all film, even stills, was a costly line item. Cauchetier “covered” this famous scene on one roll of film—eight exposures. Here is the contact sheet:

The first frame (588), shot from below, shows the crew and dolly up on the bridge. The next frame (589) is of the first take. The next three frames show takes two and three. Frame 593, third row right, pictures the CM3 camera on the 3-wheel dolly that tracked the actors; Jeanne Moreau sits below camera, hitching a ride.

Frame 594 is the celebrated frame. It was shot during take four, the final take. The last frame on the contact sheet shows Henri Serre and Oscar Werner carrying an exhausted Moreau back up the stairs.

Eight frames, that’s all: unbelievable in an era that was soon to give way to high speed motor drives or today when a set photographer using digital cameras thinks nothing of ripping off that many frames per second. Cauchetier's assignment was made doubly difficult because he also had to employ an even larger format Linhof Press camera for certain scenes that were most likely to be used for advertising promotion of the film. A close examination (by Peter Langs) of the reproduced contact sheet suggests, along with Cauchetier's notes, that he used both cameras for this scene.

Here is the sequence as it is in the film, in the only resolution I was able to find:

In his note about the contact sheet, Cauchetier says that because of the time required for the hand crank advance of his Rolliflex camera, he was able to make only one frame per take; he had to consider carefully from take to take the exact moment when to snap the shutter. His experience in aerial combat photography during the French Indochina War must have given him a keen sense of life and death timing.

Critic Marc Vernet (who wrote the textual analysis in Cauchetier’s book, in a style that only a French critic can so wondrously execute) asks “How long did it take Muybridge to photograph a galloping horse with only one foot on the ground?" I hate to be a spoiler here but the wager proposed by Leland Stanford was whether all four horse legs were ever off the ground.

But the point that Vernet draws our attention to in the photo that opens this piece, is that magical split second when all three actors have one foot on the ground, the other in mid-step. Jules and Jim have just been snookered by Catherine, who jumped out in front of them at the other end of the bridge. Head thrown back, she is clearly exultant, almost airborne, while the lads lean forward trying to hang onto their hats as if a sudden gust of wind had stalled them.

You could argue that such a caught moment is purely felicitous, but in studying the hundred plus pages of Cauchetier’s photos from the New Wave films for which he was set photographer, I have seen this Cartier-Bresson like “decisive moment” captured many times. Cauchetier includes four more of these insightful contact sheets at the end of his book, Photos de Cinéma:

Image France Editions – Photos de Cinéma link

Looking at the these pages I recalled the vitrine of contacts from NYC’s Met Museum 50th anniversary exhibition of Robert Frank’s The Americans as a window into a photographer’s creative process.

John’s Bailiwick – An Octogenarian at Fifty — Robert Frank and “The Americans” blog entry

TWO

After Jules and Jim, Truffaut’s next feature film was The Soft Skin (La Peau Douce), a seemingly conventional story of adultery. Jean Desailly portrays a somewhat introverted literary scholar of Balzac and Gide who, as unlikely as it seems, becomes enamored of a ravishing airline hostess, Francoise Dorleac, whom he meets on a flight from Paris to Lisbon. Desailly’s character embodies the quintessential male Truffaut character, a gentle man who falls in love with a woman and is eventually undone by her, his own inertia and ambivalence most often sealing his fate. The degree to which Truffaut was launched into the larger orbit of international cinema with Jules and Jim is the degree to which he was brought down to earth by these same critics with their dismissive reviews of The Soft Skin. Audiences also did not seem to know how to react to the film’s abrupt ending, as seen in this clip. Nelly Benedetti is the aggrieved wife who confronts Desailly with photos of his indiscretion. In perfect Truffautesque irony, Desailly is sitting at their regular table in a restaurant they frequent, having decided after losing Dorleac, to try to renew his vows to his wife:

Critics at the time tore into Truffaut with accusations of “melodrame.” Benedetti’s firing of the shotgun concealed under her coat struck American audiences especially as risible, given that in our country any self-respecting wife would have pulled out a Glock or a Magnum. But I feel that time has finally caught up with this under-rated film, that despite its strangely ambiguous final close-up of Benedetti, it is consistent with Truffaut’s other early pictures. The score by Georges Delarue, spare but hauntingly beautiful and tragic, is contemporaneous with his equally emotional  score for Godard’s Contempt.

Many of Cauchetier’s behind the scenes stills of this production reveal a Truffaut who seems energized, happily basking in the way his films have fulfilled the promise of his critical writings.

Here is Truffaut standing next to camera. Below him, Jean Desailly is asleep in a chair. The actor was performing in a play at night so he caught catnaps on the set whenever possible. Truffaut has his left index finger at his lips as if lost in thought or perhaps calling for quiet, not to disturb Jean. This intimate and humorous moment is made richer by the fact that Truffaut is standing on a scaffold set up in his and wife Madeline Morgenstern’s own apartment, an indication that even at this time, economy was a driving force in New Wave film production.

Camera cars did exist at the time but not many films could afford them. The vehicle of choice on city streets was often the Citroen CV2, tires partly deflated for smoothness. Here, Truffaut is walking backwards at the side of the car as it tracks in front of Desailly, extreme frame left.

Truffaut walking backwards, watching Desailly, as the camera assistant pulls focus.

An even zanier example of the CV2 as camera car is from Cauchetier’s photo of the Adieu Philippine camera crew filming in Corsica.

La Peau Douce's love scene between the self-contained academic played by Desailly and the socialized air hostess played by Dorleac is one of the most tender and poetic in Truffaut’s work. Cauchetier’s photo of Desailly’s two hands caressing Dorleac’s knee just before he loosens her gartered stocking, is one of the most sensuous photos in all of French cinema. It is a moment that seems straight out of the movie-- but in fact, the film scene plays as intercut singles with just an insert of Dessaily's hand caressing Dorleac's knee. There is no wider two shot in the actual film that captures this so delicate moment. This is yet another example of how rich Cauchetier's images are in capturing a crucial cinematic moment that exists only from his Rollei.

THREE

From his discovery by Truffaut as the truant schoolboy in The Four Hundred Blows, Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel served as cinematic alter ego for the director in a quartet of feature films and a short. Here is a very brief clip of the Doinel saga:

Stolen Kisses is the second of the four features and the first of the Doinel episodes shot in color. Truffaut was now no longer working with Raoul Coutard. His replacement on several films was Denys Clerval. Then, Nestor Almendros established a long-term relationship with Truffaut that began on The Wild Child and lasted until Truffaut’s untimely death at 52. Their last film together was Vivement Dimanche. Cauchetier was the set photographer on Stolen Kisses and continued to record historic images.

Here is his poetic portrait of Truffaut and Léaud.

On the right is the legendary founder of the Cinemateque Francaise, Henri Langlois. Cauchetier’s photo has a beautiful triangular symmetry that is doubled in Léaud’s quietly cupped hands, almost as if this sometimes troubled actor is paying modest homage to these two titans of French cinema.

Just as in the last blog’s photo of Godard trying to convince a doubtful Belmondo and Seberg of his shooting plan, here it is Leaud who is trying to convince a clearly dubious Truffaut of his intentions. This is another of those so human moments that Cauchetier seems always to have on his radar.

Truffaut, nailbiting—worrying about another "great idea" from his leading man?

I know that a set photographer has privileged, insider access to actors and crew and often has a sense of what will unfold in the repeated action from take to take. But Cauchetier’s photographs are unique among his colleagues, in that he is a movie outsider (with pivotal and dramatic life experience before ever crossing onto a set). He brings that same quality of journalistic observation to his work in cinema that sustained him before, and for decades after that brief ten-year window with the New Wave. Perhaps he always knew that this period was not to be the only high point in his career, but in true Truffautesque irony, this is the time from which much of the world knows his work. I am reminded of another photographer who was the subject of my recent essay, Frank Hurley, who was indeed defined by the Shakleton Antarctic Expedition, but whose work continued to grow during another four decades.

John’s Bailiwick – Frank Hurley: The “Endurance” and Paget Color blog entry

Another triptych-themed photo embodies the Doinel saga. It is Cauchetier’s triple portrait of Léaud, also from Stolen Kisses.

Antoine, sweater pulled up to cover his mouth against the cold of a dank cell, is the truant of The 400 Blows. Looking at the painting, arms akimbo, is the photo of Doinel from Love at Twenty. It rests on a shelf as the present time Doinel makes a furtive glance. The juxtaposition of the three sets of eyes scoping out its neighbor is both playful and a meditation on aging and the way time can collapse on itself. This mutability of time is a constant theme in French film (think of Alain Resnais and of the roman nouveau) and this image distills it.

By the time of Stolen Kisses in 1968 many of the New Wave films were being shot with direct sound and in color.

In this photo Truffaut, in his characteristic gesture of fingers to lips, stands next to cinematographer Denys Clerval. The Éclair camera is housed in a sound blimp and the dichroic filters in front of the obie lights indicate that it is a film in color. The director was to film in black and white only once more, in The Wild Child. But all of the Cauchetier’s photos in Photos de Cinéma are in black-and-white; and that is how we remember much of  this period in cinema history.

I’ll end this “Small Change” (another Truffaut title) regard of the New Wave through Raymond Cauchetier’s historic photos, with two of his gently humorous photo observations. Here is a photo of Truffaut from 1962 holding a hand puppet up to the matte box, no camera crew in sight.

And here is the image that opens Cauchetier’s book. Adieu Philippine is far from being the most enduring film of the New Wave, but it is an early and vital one.

Director Jacques Rozier is pictured at far right. The human tripod is 1st AD Francis Cognani (why isn’t that part of the job description in this country?). And behind the lens is Jean Boffety, one of the lesser-known but brilliant New Wave cinematographers (he photographed many films for Robert Enrico, an underrated director himself). Boffety was a quintessential French mec, a hard living, hard-drinking/ chain-smoking guy who died from his excesses way too early, but who had a passion for filmmaking even greater than he had for Johnny Walker Black.

During a car trip that Carol and I made into the heart of Mexico with Boffety, he insisted that we take a slight detour from our itinerary, to have a tequila in the town of Tequila. We watched the ritual of the Sunday evening paseo in cathedral plaza as Boffety sized up the strolling, chapheroned  maidens, while never letting his glass verge toward empty. I was uncertain whether we were all going to get back to the rental car intact.

One of my clearest memories of Jean Boffety comes from a visit to Paris when I slept on his apartment's living room sofa. No matter how late he had been up the night before, Jean always rose way early before the shooting call. As he headed toward the bathroom at 5 am, I'd see and smell  his smoking Gitane dangling Belmondo-like from his lips; this was followed by a coup of whiskey after brushing his teeth. Accompanying him downstairs to the corner bar-tabac we'd chat as I drank a coffee while he nursed a Calvados and a double express, even while lighting up his fourth smoke….  Adieu, cher Jean. You, too, were the New Wave ---  n'est ce pas, Raymond?

The last part of this essay will  look at Raymond Cauchetier’s work  in Indochina ---  from his days of military service in the early 50s to a photo retrospective held in Saigon in 2005 ---  as well as his recent photography of Romanesque sculptures in European churches.

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