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High Contrast and the Girls Will Be Beautiful: Willy Kurant on Shooting Godard's "Masculin Féminin"

The great cinematographer of films by Godard, Maurice Pialat, and Agnès Varda discusses his experience and his signature.
The new digitization and restoration in 2K from Éclair of Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin Féminin (1966) that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival is exclusively playing on MUBI in most countries around the world May 22 - June 21, 2016.
This year at the Cannes Film Festival a new digitization and restoration in 2K of Jean-Luc Godard's French New Wave classic Masculin Féminin premiered in the Cannes Classics section. To talk more about the film, we called upon its cinematographer, the great Willy Kurant. Working not only with Godard but such filmmakers as Agnès Varda, Maurice Pialat, Orson Welles, Philippe Garrel, and even Louis CK, the versatile director of photography generously spoke with us about his experience shooting Masculin Féminin, his visual signature, the new restoration which he helped supervise, and more.

NOTEBOOK: Masculin Féminin was one of the very first feature films you did. Could you tell us more about how you met Jean-Luc Godard and came to be involved in the project?
WILLY KURANT: Simple. I was shooting my first feature at Noirmoutier, it’s an island in France. Godard came by to see Agnès Varda, as I recall. He then went to the lab—he had an office next to our production office. Through the projection window of the little projector that was there, he saw my rushes in black and white Cinemascope with Catherine Deneuve, and he decided to ask me to do Masculin Féminin. This is how it happened. It’s quite the fairy tale, but it’s not how it happens in general.
It’s nice, but I was a bit bothered by the mood on the set—without sounding defeatist, there was a guy writing a book on Godard who was dragging me in shit from dawn to dusk. And some people, to be noticed, were inventing situations that had never existed. At that time, Godard was in fashion, and in the night clubs people were talking about what happened at Chez Castel, at Godard’s with me, some stuff that was totally crazy, totally false. Anyway, it was in [the book] En attendant Godard.
NOTEBOOK: Godard has a reputation today for shooting on the fly, with a large degree of spontaneity both in the script and in what ends up on screen. Masculin Féminin seems divided between scenes that feel staged and framed with deliberation, and scenes that feel off-the-cuff and almost like a documentary in their rawness. Was this your experience shooting with him? Did it require a lot of improvisation on your part?
KURANT: Let me tell you how it worked on my first day. My first day of shooting. It is a very wide café. And I arrived there and Godard said, "What camera would you like to have, considering it has to be fast?” So I said, "Why not an Arriflex?" And he cut me immediately. He told me, "No, no, it's going to be a Mitchell." A Mitchell is very big American camera, very, very good, but which does not have a reflex viewfinder. It's got a very clear viewfinder which is on the side of the camera, and you have to almost get a stiff neck to be in the right position to see the frame.
So I said, "Yes, I can work with a Mitchell, but you have to know that I'm not used to it, so it will take a certain while." And he told me, "Oh, there's no problem. I'll give you something very easy the first day. And I have to give you one instruction: don't frame too well. When you frame down, or do a tilt or a pan, sometimes I want you to slip, and to capture a frame not very well, and this will be on purpose." So you know, this is a lot of things for a first day of photography [laughs]. But he said, "It's going to be very simple." So when I arrived at this café, I realized it was a big café, and the shot he wanted would be a very complicated shot. A rite of passage.
I had been a trainee in London. I was with Geoffrey Unsworth and John Walcott, so I knew about those cameras, but I was not in position to operate when I was a trainee. I was not an operator. I was mostly watching people. And this because I got a grant from the British council to learn cinema in Great Britain for six months. So I was more or less an observer, you know. And sometimes, once in awhile, touching the camera, racking the focuses, behind John Walcott. But okay, I learned a lot of things. Did I have professors here? No, I had Jack Hildyard and Geoffrey Unsworth. That's not too bad.
So I'm coming back to Godard on the set—"I'm going to give you something very simple"—and we did not rehearse. I was sitting on an Elemac, an Italian dolly, my assistant by my side. And I realize that what Godard wanted me to do was the most complicated thing because it was one shot lasting something like 10 minutes, where I was moving from one person to the other person. And the problem is: rehearsals. I never had one. And the legend from people who had been around me was: "Oh, he needs a rehearsal because he's coming from the classic cinema." Come on! Aside from what I did in London, I came from combat cameras… I went to Vietnam, I covered the Cuban revolution, a lot of things like that, you know, before I had the chance to do a feature with Agnès Varda. And I got it from Agnès because she had seen what I had done in Cuba, and she was in Cuba before me. I had shot something for the Belgian Cinematheque, where I photographed her and Jacques Demy, and they were pleased by what they saw. And you know, she's a tough cookie. If she was pleased, I wondered who else could not be pleased.
So I was behind my camera, discovering the movement, not needing a rehearsal. But: it was the shot, with the instruction about the framing. And I did this long shot, you know. The camera grip was my grip in The Creatures, from Agnès Varda, and he was kind of the grip of the French New Wave. I knew him. The electrician, I knew him also. But it was a very minimal group. So I couldn't predict what was going to happen, you know, in the shot. They were moving me from one place to the other, and I was framing like a reporter, with a Mitchell BNC.
This is a story, the real story. People have added things, like this guy who wrote this thing badmouthing me, En attendant Godard, along with some anti-Semitic comments on the top of everything, telling in French [reading a book in French]: “il était derrière le viseur comme un enfant juif persécuté” [“He was behind the viewfinder like a persecuted Jewish kid”]). That's really disgusting.
You see, afterward, I became instantly the favorite kid of the New Cinema. When I did the [Jerzy] Skolimowski [1967’s Le départ] that followed, he told me “I hope you won’t frame badly, because they are taking the same framer as on Godard’s film.” And I replied to him, “the framer was me, but I was asked to badly frame people when I shot them, to leave their head half in the field, the arms half in the field,” and that was something he wanted in order to make it feel natural, as if it had been a live report. A report with a BNC, a clear viewfinder, hooked behind a camera, neck bent—perfect to get a forever-stiff neck. But some people are used to it, and me too. Godard didn’t make any comment. Sometimes he sends me a little note, to salute me, like when I did the [Philippe] Garrel film, I got each time a little salutary note from Godard via the sound engineer. I met him in Hollywood by total chance one day, I caught him red-handed buying hardware! He almost jumped. I was buying stuff for my photo-electric cell and then he jumped when he saw me… But he stayed very little with me. He stayed three minutes, and he left very quickly. Very quickly.
NOTEBOOK: From a technical standpoint, the film is notable in its use of high-contrast photography. Could you tell us more about how this came about, and why Godard wanted that aesthetic for this film?
KURANT: High contrast is my cup of tea. I chose to work with a Kodak 4X. For what reason? Because on the previous movie, Godard had worked with some English film—very, very good film stock, but in short cans. I did see the assistant loading cans of rolls made for still photography in a big mag. So I had tested it, I was the first one to work with this Kodak. In the world, I don't know. I was the first one in France. I worked with that on The Creatures [Agnès Varda, 1966], that's what he saw when he looked through the window in the screening room. That's why he hired me.
The contrast in black and white is kind of my signature now. Filming with an electronic camera, you know, the camera does part of the photography. I mean, if you are looking in a viewfinder on one of those cameras, there's a system inside which is correcting what you are doing all the time. I don't want to be corrected. If I do something dark, I want it to stay dark. So probably he saw the two feature films I'd done, which are very, very black. Much more black than that. It's due to the processing time I give to the lab. And in this, I would do some little test on the end of the roll. But Godard would steal the test immediately, and he told me, "No no no, I will use that to do the timing." Because I have not been called to do the timing, to tell you the truth. He did the timing.
But working with this Kodak stock, which is 400 ASA, I even pushed that one, and I was very capable of certain things. For one good reason: I had been a researcher, also, in photochemical problems at the Institut Photographique in Brussels, Belgium. There was no film school at that time. I was a trainee there, and they were putting together new processes in color, which we're using in black and white, like in color. I was very knowledgeable about those things, so I controlled the density and the exposure myself.
NOTEBOOK: You were setting the exposure?
KURANT: The exposure was already 400 ASA, sometimes I pushed it much more. I don't remember now, because it's 50 years away. I know in the lab—it was very light when it needed to be light and dark. Did you see this film in Cannes?
NOTEBOOK: My colleague did, but not me. My big regret.
KURANT: And what did she say?
NOTEBOOK: She said it was beautiful.
KURANT: Now, there is still a problem there. When I timed it in the machine, I wanted to have a test before I started. Because usually what I saw in this lab before was very, very light, and I didn't want something to come out very, very light. And I could not correct it and install the type of ambience I was wanting. So finally I spoke to the chief of the project, who works for our producer, Florence. I called her before and asked her to really take care that my print, my element to do the timing, would not be too bright. It was rather bright, but finally the big scene, the large scene at the beginning, is slightly lighter than on the original. But you know, the machine is doing the DCP, and that's what you see on the big screen. It's called the Colorus. It's a timing machine—a bench. It is a bench on which you are able to do something for the film world, and at the same time, do something for the digital world. So it does two jobs at once.
So it's slightly lighter, but still I was able to get a certain ambience. Of course, you can always discuss this: it was probably too light, lighter than what I did in the original. But with the original film, we're in a lab where you're doing it from the beginning to the end. And it was not the same situation. But still, it's very nice. Nothing came out badly. There's a small difference, you can always argue about that. But I cannot change the machine. That machine disappeared the next day and was sent to another lab. It was there for the last day at the Lab Éclair, before the lab moved to Vanves, which is another small town. So I'm coming from the beginning of the photochemical process and the end of the photochemical process. The beginning, when I was in the Institut Photographique research lab, where I learned a lot of things. Not opening my mouth, just watching.
NOTEBOOK: You've worked with a diverse array of directors, like Godard, Orson Welles, and Maurice Pialat, who are known for very different visual signatures. You've also shot for features, documentaries, concert films, television, in color and black and white, in movies made within a studio system and made outside it. Do you see a continuity in your work, a type of image, project, or process that attracts you?
KURANT: Sometimes yes, especially in the night scenes. I made my own day-for-night filters, at a time they did not exist. That's what I use in The Night of the Following Day [Hubert Cornfield, 1968], for instance. And I used it for Pialat, during the night scenes. I did not use it on the Godard movie—I had not done it yet. I sometimes had very dark situations, which I handled—sorry for my ego—extremely well.
Pialat had fired everybody, everybody he ever worked with, except me. But I started with Pialat. I did all of his shorts. 11 shorts in Istanbul, in Turkey. I was forced on him. It was very easy for me, and he told me, "Normally, I take the camera away from the cameraman, and I do it myself." And I answered him, "from me, you are not going to take it because it's my camera. And I'll leave." He never took the camera.
NOTEBOOK: We'd like to mention your most recent film, Philippe Garrel's Jealousy, a film which in many ways seems like a spiritual return to the French cinema of the 60s and 70s and was also shot in high-contrast black and white.
KURANT: That was what he wanted. But the problem is some people gets compliments because they are able to photograph in high contrast. I will not name them. They do it very well. But they screw up the faces of the girls. And my motto is: high contrast, and the girls will be beautiful. Such a difference. You have to have a certain amount of experience to know where to place your lights, to place your sources, and to try to work with people who understand what you are doing. And Garrel understood me because for years he wanted to work with me. That's what he told me. I would see him at the Café de Flore in the 60s. Then I moved to the US, where I didn't do anything really interesting. But I earned a lot of money.
NOTEBOOK: May I have just one last question? It's kind of cheesy, but just to end everything.
KURANT: If it's cheesy, it's cheesy.
NOTEBOOK: Looking back, what stands out as the work that you're the most proud of?
KURANT: I can't answer. If you want, like a debutante dancer, I'm proud of Masculin Féminin. I'm also proud of Under the Sun of Satan [Maurice Pialat, 1987], because I didn't have any problem with Pialat and I was able to do something—how will I say?—visual. All the time. Even in the dark moments.

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