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In Memory of William Lubtchansky

The miracle of empty hands (from Nouvelle Vague)

26 October 1937 – 4 May 2010.

William Lubtchansky was one of the greatest cinematographers of our time, and of any time. He shot films for Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Agnès Varda, Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, François Truffaut, Claude Lanzmann, Philippe Garrel, and many others. Among his many accomplishments was helping to “romanticize” the work of Godard and Rivette: he assisted them both in transitioning into their later, lusher styles.

I’ve assembled below clips from some of the 113 films he shot.

1975: Numéro deux, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Godard’s “second first film” found him in transition, trying to find a way beyond the Dziga Vertov Group phase (1968–72) that had occupied him since finishing Week-end (1967).

1976: Noroît, directed by Jacques Rivette

This is an all-female-cast Jacobean pirate revenge tragedy. Yes. It’s really a shame Rivette’s work isn’t better known in the US, or more available, as he’s one of the best directors of all time. (Lubtchansky enabled Rivette to move from 16mm to 35, bringing him into a long later phase that dominated the second half of his career.)

1976: “Six fois deux/Sur et sous la communication”, directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville

I’ve seen only the first episode of this, but thought it remarkable. Godard is still in his contemplative, journalistic, post-DVG mode.

1976: Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere), directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville (using footage shot by the Dziga Vertov Group)

Godard and Miéville reflect on JLG’s break with Gorin, among many other things.

1977: Toute révolution est un coup de dés (Every Revolution Is a Throw of the Dice), directed by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub

A clip is available at YouTube, but can’t be embedded.

1977: “France/tour/detour/deux/enfants”, directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville

A really brilliant and provocative documentary miniseries.

1980: Sauve qui peut (la vie), directed by Jean-Luc Godard

At the moment, this is probably my favorite Godard film. It’s unlike anything else ever made. It’s also the beginning of his lusher, later style (as you can clearly see if you compare it to his more video-based, post-Dziga Vertov films above.)

Part of what’s interesting in looking at a cinematographer’s filmography, rather than a director’s, is that it can lead to insights in changes in style. Lubtchansky shot Rivette’s films in 35mm, leading to a radical change in the look and style of that man’s work. (It’s like seeing Rivette’s signature themes and ideas being arranged from one set of instruments to another.) Starting with this film, Lubtchansky begins doing something similar with Godard, while still retaining the plasticity that Godard had gained from his 1970s video work.

We often tend to think of “Rivette’s style” and “Godard’s style”—and Rivette and Godard were of course instrumental in developing auteur theory, when they wrote for Cahiers du cinéma—but Lubtchansky was an essential collaborator of both directors, a key part of an ongoing synthesis. For instance, one of the defining visual elements of Godard’s 80s work is the use of natural light, and heavy back-lighting. Whose idea was that? Was it Lubtchansky’s? What’s more, Lubtchansky’s assistant Christophe Pollock went on to develop this style, employing it in numerous 1990s and 2000s films (including films for Godard and Rivette).

Lubtchansky may have been as important to 1970s and 80s French cinema as Gordon Willis was to 1970s US cinema.

1981: La femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door), directed by François Truffaut

1981: Le pont du Nord, directed by Jacques Rivette

1981: Merry-Go-Round, directed by Jacques Rivette

Click here for a nice write-up of this little-known film.

1984: Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations), directed by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub

This entire film is available at YouTube, but embedding is disabled.

1985: Shoah, directed by Claude Lanzmann

1990: Nouvelle vague, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

This is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.

1991: La belle noiseuse, directed by Jacques Rivette

Surprisingly (for this film), the only clip at I could find at YouTube is very safe for work. This is a really marvelous film.

1992: Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (Suhrkamp Verlag) (Antigone), directed by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub

1994: Jeanne la Pucelle I – Les batailles (Joan the Maid 1: The Battles) and Jeanne la Pucelle II – Les prisons (2: The Prisons), directed by Jacques Rivette

Given Rivette’s dual fascination with women and history, it was only a matter of time before he got to Jeanne d’Arc. Obviously, Lubtchansky’s vast expertise with other, more commercial projects was instrumental in enabling Rivette to even attempt this film.

1999: Sicilia!, directed by Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub

And yet at the same time, Lubtchansky was able to switch from one style to another. Here an elsewhere in his collaborations with Huillet and Straub, he does nothing to detract from their preferred “flat,” Marxist style.

This clip doesn’t have any English subtitles, hélas, but the film’s remarkable style and energy are still apparent. I find this one of the best scenes in the film (which I encourage you to track down any way you can). It’s too bad this one isn’t more readily available, as it’s one of the best places to start watching Huillet and Straub, two very overlooked but extremely important filmmakers. This one’s an adaptation of Elio Vittorini’s Conversations in Sicily.

2001: Va savoir (Who Knows?), directed by Jacques Rivette

Va savoir is one of the best places to start watching Rivette’s films (and Lubtchansky’s). It’s both ridiculously superb and widely available in the US. Strongly recommended!

2003: Histoire de Marie et Julien, directed by Jacques Rivette

A sequel of sorts to many earlier Rivette films: Le Pont du Nord (1981), which has a Marie and Julien—but also Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974), Noroît (1976), and Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976). …Lubtchansky shot that last one, but sadly I can’t find any clips from it—I guess a film starring both Juliet Berto and Bulle Ogier is too much for the internet to handle. Like Noroît, it’s a truly amazing film—a fantasy noir directly inspired by The Seventh Victim (1943)! Some things are simply too cool for us mortals to possess. You can read more about it all here and here. And here.

This is a fine place to mention that Lubtchansky shot three of the four films that Juliet Berto directed: Neige (1981), Cap Canaille (1983), and Havre (1986). Sadly, I’ve not seen any of them.

2005: Les amants réguliers (Regular Lovers), directed by Philippe Garrel

The Kinks song isn’t in the film, but we won’t complain about the pairing. (Maybe Wes Anderson’s a fan?)

2007: Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais), directed by Jacques Rivette

This was one of the last films of Gérard Depardieu’s son, Guillaume. He’s magnificent in it (as is Jeanne Balibar—but that goes without saying). The film is an adaptation of a Balzac novel. (Balzac is never far from Rivette’s work.)

2008: La frontière de l’aube (Frontier of Dawn), directed by Philippe Garrel

2009: 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup (Around a Small Mountain), directed by Jacques Rivette

This may prove Rivette’s final film. It was William Lubtchansky’s.

May his work live forever.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

7 thoughts on “In Memory of William Lubtchansky

  1. The Kinks song is indeed in Les amants réguliers. But even nitpicking does not take away the sting of our having lost Lubtchansky.

    1. You have a much better memory than I do. Especially when it comes to all things Kinky.

      One begins imagining a conversation between Lubtchansky and Pedro Costa about rock music… While Godard sits in the background, editing in fragments of Hindemith… Chiming in under his breath about how he knew the Rolling Stones…

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