«I would have preferred to do Rembrandt lighting rather than the low-contrast stuff I did in many of the early films. At the same time, I was satisfied by the way I managed the lighting, given the limited time and means.»
These are the words of Raoul Coutard, the cinematographer for various French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) masterpieces, such as Breathless (1960) and Band of Outsiders (1964) by Jean-Luc Godard (with whom he often worked), Jules and Jim (1962) and Shoot the Piano Player (1960) by François Truffaut, to name just a few.
The New Wave emerged in France in the late 1950s, as a reaction to traditional cinema and its idealistic and moralistic tendencies that had nothing to do with the daily realities of life on French streets.
Before becoming directors, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Éric Rohmer all worked as film critics for Cahiers du Cinéma. And it is in the pages of this influential French film magazine that a comment by Godard appears, which summarises the New Wave’s aim as being to capture «the splendour of reality». This meant that nothing was allowed to come between the eye and reality. Heavy, costly equipment was therefore abandoned, and cinema hit the streets or entered everyday apartments (which often belonged to the directors themselves), to tell stories that touched the heart and future of human existence with no filters or artificial devices.
This concept was echoed in the work of cinematographers like Coutard. So, New Wave lighting is always natural light.
«We used a technique that featured no artificial lighting at all. We just waited until it was right,» recounts the cinematographer Nestor Almendros, speaking about Éric Rohmer’s The Collector, in an interview included in the book Masters of Light by Dennis Schaffer and Larry Salvato. Almendros always underlined the importance of natural light, saying that «my way of lighting and seeing reality is realistic. [...] I go to a location, I see where the light normally falls and I try to capture it as it is, or I reinforce it, if it is not strong enough.»
We used a technique that featured no artificial lighting at all. We just waited until it was right,» recounts the cinematographer Nestor Almendros
Directors like Godard, Rohmer and Truffaut laid great importance on photography, but, at the same time, they did not want it to dominate the film. In fact, Almendros once said that before the New Wave, «the cinematographer was a kind of dictator. It took so long to set up a frame there was almost no time left for the actors to rehearse or the directors to shoot the movie. We then had to assemble the lights, and that, too, was a demanding ritual.»
The New Wave directors hated the glossy, artificial light of traditional French cinema that forced actors and actresses «to act like mummies» with spotlights shining in their eyes.
This aversion to tradition is revealed in François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) that focuses on the making of a film, Meet Pamela, and highlights the fake techniques of classic cinema, like the famous "Day for Night effect", in which a night scene is actually shot in a studio in broad daylight. Ferrand, the director, played by Truffaut himself, admits that Meet Pamela will be the last film made with these techniques, thereby indicating how the New Wave saw the future of cinema.
The overall effect of these important changes is that certain iconic faces, scenes and narrative techniques have been etched on the memories of generations of cinemagoers, like the close-ups of Jean-Paul Belmondo, who passed away this year, the jump-cuts in Breathless, or the chase through the Louvre by the actors in Band of Outsiders (also referenced in The Dreamers by Bernardo Bertolucci). All this was made possible thanks to the work of cinematographers, like Raoul Coutard and Nestor Almendros, who put light back at the service of narration. A light that succeeds in rendering the essence of real life and its many stories. The only light, perhaps, that can capture «the splendour of reality».