The Seven Cinematographical Lives of Willy Kurant

By Bernard Payen

[ English ] [ français ]

Cinematographer for Godard, Welles, Skolimowski, Pialat, Gainsbourg and more recently Garrel, Willy Kurant has had a prolific, eclectic, yet coherent career since his early days as a cameraman for television news reports in the 1950’s. In order to synthesize his career, we have made the (of course) arbitrary choice of describing it as seven cinematographical lives, each of them related to the others

The first formative step was television reporting. In the 50’s and 60’s, Willy Kurant traveled the world in order to bring far-away images to French televisions. These were years of apprenticeship, especially on the newsreels of the time (“5 Colonnes à la une”), which left their mark on Kurant, who would forever after be influenced by the aesthetics of cinema vérité and gave him a taste for the audacious camera movements and long master shots that would appear later in the many films whose images he would create.

The reporter years, his taste for the documentary, and for the camera carried on the shoulder, would lead Willy Kurant straight into the nouvelle vague. First, through short films (Rozier, Karmitz, Averty), before his first feature-length film as a cinematographer, Les Créatures by Agnès Varda, her fourth film, and a curious fantasy in black and white scope. Then, Godard invited him to do the cinematography of Masculin féminin. “I suggested to Godard that we film with a new kind of film that I had already used : instead of developing at a gamma of 0.67, I developed it at 0.90 in order to eliminate the grey and obtain more contrast between the black and the white.” [1]

Two years later, doubtlessly influenced by Godard’s films, Jerzy Skolimowski asks Willy Kurant to film his fourth feature-length film, Le Départ (1967). The portrait of a young hairdresser in love with racing cars, it is a film on speed, rhythmic like an automobile race. “It was a chaotic sort of filming style with very little means. We filmed for 4 or 5 weeks. Lying down on his lap, I would film Jean-Pierre Léaud from the side. He was seated himself on top of a driver who was holding the steering wheel, and that is how we filmed the scenes.” [2]

The same year as Le Départ, Willy Kurant filmed Anna, a musical comedy for television directed by Pierre Koralnik, for whom the greatest strength of his cameraman was “to know natural light just as well as he knew the academic lighting from the time before the new wave.” [3] Precisely, Anna, because of its modernity (pop fiction with saturated colours, a hymn to the beauty of Anna Karina), was “the musical link between new wave and pop art,” according to Koralnik (3) and became a true “cult film” over the years because of the famous songs by tandem Michel Colombier and Serge Gainsbourg. Nearly nine years later, Gainsbourg called Kurant again to film his first feature length film, the hyperrealist Je t’aime moi non plus. Two other projects followed : Equateur (1983), for which the cinematographer designed a dark image with the use of the bright light of arc lamps for some scenes, and then Charlotte For Ever (1987) filmed on the shoulder in a light similar to that of many Hollywood films from the 50’s and 60’s.

The fifth step, the fifth life, was his meeting with Orson Welles for The Immortal Story in 1966, which allowed him to experiment again and find ways to make up for the limited means. “At Chinchon, in Spain, one day on set, part of the equipment hadn’t arrived, so I “sold” Orson 150mm long focus shots as a substitute for travelling car shots, even though he had never used a lens beyond 32mm !” [4]. Unfortunately, two thirds of the Welles movies for which Willy Kurant designed the image are not available to viewers today. The Heroine, which was supposed to follow up on The Immortal Story and The Deep, one of Welles’ ambitious projects on a boat, were never finished. Willy Kurant’s American career began just after working on that film. He spent nearly 25 years in the United States, between independent films and larger-budget production, and, under a pseudonym, exploration of B movies (The Melting Man, etc.). With The Night of the Following Day by Hubert Cornfield, he filmed Marlon Brando and created at the very end a magnificent “American night,” a true blue tinged dawn that became the speciality of the graduate of the Belgian Institut Photographique. Another American Night (mixed with a real night) lit a famous scene from Sous le Soleil de Satan by Maurice Pialat. This film (also notable for the scenes of Flemish countryside from Willy Kurant’s childhood) was the apogee of their collaboration that had begun in 1963 with Chroniques turques, influenced by the “carried camera” aesthetics of the reporter that he was at the time. For Pialat, he also filmed scenes from A nos amours, the interiors and exteriors of what would be pre-shooting at Hyères. The relationship between Kurant and Pialat wasn’t always easy, but the director talked about his great respect for the cameraman in a book by Dominique Maillet, En lumière, sur les directeurs de la photographie (published by Dujarric in 2001) : “In my opinion, Kurant is a formalist. I say this with affection, he is much greater than he thinks and perhaps than he aims to be...”

Willy Kurant is currently pursuing his multiple cinematographic lives. One of the most recent, the seventh and last that will be discussed here, is his meeting with Philippe Garrel for the lighting on his penultimate film, Un été brûlant in 2011, and his latest film in 2013, La Jalousie. Both films in Scope seem to symbolize the art of Willy Kurant’s lighting, the former treating the image’s colour like a watercolour in primary colours, the latter is a highly contrasted black and white that is a throwback to the cinematographer’s first feature-length films.

[1_ Interview published in the review Lumières n° 4 in May 2011 (Eric Gautier)1 _

[2_ Interview published in the newsletter of the Cinémathèque in September 20011 _

[3_ Interview published by " " in September 2008 (Fred Régent)1 _1 _

[4_ Interview published in the review Cinémathèque (n° 22, Spring 2003)

(Article published with the kind permission of its author)1 _