Sometimes great cinematography has little to do with careful composition, cleverly thought-out movements or ingenious lightning. Sometimes a great shot simply comes from effectively representing a certain energy or emotion, and that can be achieved even with very minimal technical expertise. Sometimes you just need to point the camera at the right place, at the right time, with the right subjects in front of it and you create cinematic history.
To me, this One Shot represents such an example. It’s a shot, probable the shot, from Jules et Jim (1962), the seminal French movie by new-wave director Francois Truffaut. It’s one of the leading examples of the Nouvelle Vague movement that changed the art of filmmaking significantly for decades to come.
The magic of the Nouvelle Vague lay in its spontaneous character, it’s minimal approach to filmmaking. The use of smaller hand-cameras, creative simple lightning setups and famously the jump-cutting of scenes are all examples of the technical style that defined this movement.
But Nouvelle Vague was not so much an organized movement working from a set doctrine, like the later Dogma-95 movement launched by Lars von Trier & Thomas Vinterberg. Indeed, the term Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave was coined from outside the group of filmmakers who formed the movement. And they did not so much made a set of rules to follow in film-production as they criticized the established cinematic traditions, summarized as Cinema of Quality. In short their argument was that established filmmaking conventions prevented real artists from adequately expressing their art in filmmaking. They attacked the studio-system where film production was labored, complicated, intricate and required close cooperation between dozens, if not hundreds of people. A single artist had little chance to express his original idea through such a system and expect it to come out as he originally intended.
To counter this system young filmmakers started to make their own films by using simple production techniques, improvised directing and relatively cheap & mobile equipment, shooting almost exclusively on location (mostly because studio-space was too expensive to work in). Through this form of empowerment they freed up the production-process of film and brought back a form of creativity, spontaneity and individuality to film production.
Jules et Jim
One of the most famous films coming out of this movement was, as I said, Jules et Jim. It was a story of a love-triangle between the shy intellectual Jules (Oskar Werner) from Austria, the flamboyant Jim (Henri Serre) from Paris and the magical Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). In a way it relates to On the Road (2012) and the triangle between Dean Moriarity (the Jim of that story), Marylou (the Catherine) and Sal Paradise (Jules), where the original novel might have influenced Truffaut (though Truffaut also claims to telling an autobiographical story).
Regardless, the movie embodies the freestyle bohemian lifestyle, a predecessor of Beat and Hippie/Flowerpower lifestyles. Jules and Jim, as the pair of best friends, represent a certain counter-culture, just like Truffaut himself was a counter-cultural figure, though here it feels more elitist and a little less edgy. Jules and Jim are gentleman, living a sort of luxurious lifestyle with a lot of traveling, wine drinking and just general joy-of-life. It’s not necessarily decadent, but its a lot less scruffy and dirty than the later counter-culture movements.
Truffaut & Coutard
Truffaut filmed his movie with help of cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Coutard was one of the most prominent cinematographers of the New Wave movement, lensing classics like À Bout de souffle (1960), Une Femme est une Femme (1961) Pierrot le Fou (1965) & Alphaville (1965) for Jean-Luc Godard (the other famous director of the movement) and several others also for Truffaut.
Coutard, who basically started filming when he started working with Godard, will be known mostly for his New Wave style of filming using hand-held cameras and natural lightning mostly, giving his work an unpolished, documentary feel.
One of his most famous contributions to the cinematography of the Nouvelle Vague was his use of reflective lightning. The story goes that Coutard’s use of hand-held cameras worked brilliantly in outdoor situations. It freed up his movements to allow for a much more dynamic way of filming. Problem was that in indoor-situations lightning would often bound his movements to certain angles and positions as to not expose the equipment. So Coutard devised a technique where he would use a single source of lights and point them up at the ceiling, which he had covered in aluminum foil. This reflected a bright diffuse light that lit the entire room enough so that extra lightning was often not necessary, giving Coutard and his director much more creative room to maneuver through the spaces. So Coutard reduced the amount of lightning-sources necessary by reflecting a single source with some simple foil. Great budget-style filmmaking!
So, THE shot, of maybe not only Jules et Jim but the whole New Wave movement is one where we see Jules, Jim and Catherine in perfect joy and union just playing around. Here it is:
Technically I can’t say a lot about it. The frame is taken from a rather shaky shot where Coutard is just racing ahead of the three actors as they run and smile using an improvised dolly-car to generally stabilize the camera-movement. But it captures the spirit of the story, the whole movement, and just a general Joie de Vivre in such a perfect way.
It reminds me of the fact that the art of cinematography can sometimes be completely simple and basic, that complicated theories are not always needed to think out a perfect shot. Sometimes you just need a camera and a good subject.
There is one magical thing worth writing about though, and this relates to Coutards cinematography and the general production. As I look at the shot I notice the uniformity of it, how it really blends its subjects together. This is, of course, in part because Catherine is dressed up as a man, erasing a visual distance between them, but their clothing also visually connects with the walkway fences in the background giving it such a consistent tone. I do believe this is an artistic choice that enhances the idea that Jules, Jim and Catherine are, at this point, One, in perfect joy and unison. Maybe that is what makes this shot so famous and everlasting, that suggestion of perfect joy and unison.