Jean-Luc Godard remembered by Caroline Champetier

3 December 1930 - 13 September 2022
The cinematographer recalls working with the radical French director, a man who transformed cinema and survived on omelettes and beer

I didn’t grow up in a movie-loving family – we rarely went to the cinema. However, I had this strange habit as a young teenager: I avidly read French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur’s film reviews. Once, I asked my parents for permission to go and see Godard’s Pierrot le Fou. They said: “Absolutely not.” I asked why. “Because it’s violent,” came the reply. I finally watched Pierrot le Fou when I studied at the national film school. The film was not violent in the way they saw it, but it was a shock, nonetheless. Little did I know then that I would spend a few years working side by side with Jean-Luc Godard.

In fact, I started gravitating towards his circle from the time I was at film school and through my 20s, thanks to the great director of photography William Lubtchansky, for whom I worked as an assistant. Lubtchansky had been the director of photography for Godard, Agnès Varda, François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, among other illustrious names of the French New Wave. They all felt ancient to me; however, they were only in their 50s and very much active. At film school, we had imbibed the New Wave; they were our masters of cinema. You had to take sides, though. There were the Rohmerian (after Eric Rohmer), the Godardian and the Truffaldian. I was a true Godardian. I was attracted to his radicalness. At the time, Godard and Truffaut had fallen out with each other, and would never patch their differences. The main distinction between Godard and the others was how he made films. Godard had his own way of writing, producing, filming and editing a film. Furthermore, unlike other film directors of his generation, he didn’t believe in characters, he only believed in actors responding to his directing.

Jean-Luc Godard directing Brigitte Bardot
Jean-Luc Godard directing Brigitte Bardot on the set of Contempt, in 1963. Photograph: Jean-Louis SWINERS/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

I was 28 when les Cahiers du Cinéma sent me on the film set of Détective to do a photo reportage. I was struck by how physical Godard was. He attached so much value and importance to props, placing them carefully on the set. To me, he looked like a painter, overseeing the composition of a still life. I told him I thought he was a manual worker rather than an intellectual. He smiled. I think he liked that. The following summer, he called me. At first, I thought it was a joke. We met at his office. He said: “I’m looking for someone who knows a bit but not too much.” I said yes immediately. He needed a director of photography by his side full-time for a few years. He had many projects and commissions for television, advertising and cinema, and I was to oversee the “image” department, from the purchase of equipment to the lighting on his films. This also meant sometimes being filmed by him while doing my job – in other words, playing my own role. He also wanted to watch every film that was released, and I had to arrange for this. Not an easy task. I remember we went together to see four films in a day and there was a film that he thought was so bad, he left the cinema literally crawling on the floor. It was a gut reaction.

Film was his entire life, there was little else beside it. He couldn’t even find time to eat properly. As far as I can recall, all he ate and drank were omelettes and beer, and an apple for breakfast. He only just had time to go to the cafe and read the newspaper every day, but apart from that, cinema occupied all his thoughts. I once asked him how his film shots looked so evidently “by Godard”. He replied, as a way of explanation: “It is because I frame, while others mostly reframe.” He drew every single shot of his films in precise découpage. I have never experienced such a clear and evident way of filming in a cinéaste. What was striking too is that he talked very little about the past, he was very much in the present, surrounded by a young crew that gave him energy but also a sense of innocence.

Was he a difficult man? He was very focused, precise, studious, constantly smoking his cigar and reflecting. He cut a rather solitary figure, expressing his feelings in silent ways. There was a great melancholy about him too; he kept saying “cinema is dead”. I was too young to hear this. After two years, I told him I needed to break apart, and spread my wings. I worked with him again in the early 90s and we regularly saw each other until he died. He chose to end his life by assisted dying, and I’m not at all surprised by his choice. To compare Godard to Picasso is appropriate. At each of his different artistic periods, he recreated a whole new cinematic world.

The GuardianTramp

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