This is a talk given by French director of photography Caroline Champetier at the La Roche-sur-Yon International Film Festival in October 2012, originally published in two parts on the festival’s site (www.fif-85.com). This translation is being published with their kind permission. This year's festival will take place from October 16-21, Kelly Reichardt will be the guest of honor. Many thanks to Emmanuel Burdeau, programmer of the festival, Jordan Mintzer and Caroline Champetier.
CAROLINE CHAMPETIER: I’ve always tried to take a step back from what I’m doing. The more I work, however, the less I’m able to deal with this exercise. I just finished production on Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust and have barely said goodbye to David Teboul, a young director who I worked with on Cinq avenue Marceau (2002), a film I think very highly of and that’s about Yves Saint Laurent’s last collection. I haven’t had enough time to step back, which is preventing me from talking to you today with enough preparation, as I would have wished, about the tools I choose for each film. So my approach will involve considering these tools through clips from the films—an approach without a safety net requiring your eyes, your questions and your indulgence.
I say “without a safety net” because when I see the film clips again, I find myself confronted with things that I’ve never seen, that escaped me when the image and I were face to face. So moments of exchange like this, that we can’t foresee, and through which the life of a film is extended, are extremely important to me. In this regard, I completely share Nobuhiro Suwa’s feeling (which he also expressed here) that the technical gesture, the momentum of the film and its making—often very powerful for us because they represent our life—have an end, whereas the film itself and its reception do not.
If, today, I’m talking in front of film clips and with critics who seize, in a structured, intellectual manner, a practice that I live in the proper sense of the word, and if, by definition, I get my hands dirtier than them, I still have the impression, in spite of everything, that I am resolutely a spectator. I’m a film spectator in a movie theater, of course, but just as much on set. When, after the discussion with the director and the conception of the shot, then the setting up of the lights—after all these intense, sometimes difficult, moments of preparation—I again take my place behind the camera, it’s as if I’m taking the spectator’s place. It is for this reason, above all, that I care about the frame.
This place has a story: as you know, directors in the 1950s talked to a director of photography and a camera operator. The camera operator was often part of the DP’s crew, but that didn’t prevent a kind of triangulation. With the arrival of the New Wave, these young directors decided that they’d only talk to a single person, the “cinematographer” (chef opérateur), a new figure in cinematography that the generation of my fathers, and even a little before, was part of. Personally, I prefer the term “director of photography.”
If I’m strongly attached to the frame, it’s also because the framing is linked to that moment where the rhythm of the actions on set is modified, where time becomes the actors’, of whom I become a spectator. So all my senses are extraordinarily acute to this frame that has today become a target, unfortunately. In occupying this place, we feel something almost spiritual. The place of the spectator, be it yours or mine at this precise moment, is a position of grace because we receive something. This is perhaps what Godard meant when he said that the cinema could have become a cult.
This clip is playful and at the same time it really captures the making of the film. It’s the first film that I lit for Jean-Luc Godard, after many years at William Lubtchansky’s side: Soigne ta droite (Keep Your Right Up, 1987).
One day in September, I got a phone call. On the other end of the line, a voice with a strong Swiss accent says to me: “I am Jean-Luc Godard. I’m looking for someone who knows a little bit, but not too much.” That was exactly the state I found myself in. I’d been an assistant for several years, I knew about sets, cameras, film stock, lenses…
We’re in 1985, I’m not yet thirty and Jean-Luc Godard is giving me this position as director of photography for Soigne ta droite, then for Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma, in which I also play the wife of Jean-Pierre Léaud, who plays the director.
You can’t really say there was a crew on the set of Soigne ta droite. There were three of us—Jean-Luc Godard, François Musy, the sound mixer, an assistant director and me. Since I was working alone, I opted for an Arri BL4, a fairly easy to use 35mm camera with light Zeiss lenses. I still use them because they have the advantage of being light and compact, contrary to the whole dogma of DPs who don’t think they’re sharp enough or sophisticated enough. That said, the harshness of digital sensors is changing this and softer lenses can give really good results.
Those years saw something new appear in the manufacture of lenses: the wide aperture, meaning the opening of the diaphragm to 1.3 rather than 2.3 or 2.8. Godard used these lenses a lot because he likes to shoot without too much lighting equipment, for example for Je vous salue Marie (1984). I don’t know if you remember the shots where the focus—what we call focus, meaning the focus area—is at a very precise point and doesn’t vary. So it’s out of focus in the foreground and background. These wide aperture lenses change the relationship to the depth of field and change the perception of the shot. The focus area remains on one plane. A reality exists behind it, but it’s out of focus. Until then this wasn’t the case at all since in films several planes could neatly co-exist.
A few words on the film stock: I arrived in film with Kodak 5247, a magnificent, Monopack color film that was only 100ASA. Now there are many different film stocks, including daylight films, but at that time, there was only one and it was only tungsten balanced. When we shot outside, we had to use an 85 filter to correct it to the right color temperature and it was no more than 80ASA.
The small amount of equipment explains in part how I found myself alone as the cameraperson for the shoot of Soigne ta droite. When we were shooting with Les Rita Mitsouko, in their little studio at the Porte de la Villette and then in Paris, I was alone with the sound mixer, loading the magazines—I had four or five—setting up the camera, setting up the frame JLG wanted, arranging the three or four lights needed for the shot. Every gesture took the time it needed to take. It happened that Godard decided it was late and that he was going to bed. He told me before leaving, “Do two close-ups on Catherine, some wide shots of her and Fred…” The working hours of Les Rita Mitsouko weren’t exactly the same as his… So we had to spend part of the night with them to get those shots.
So it was very early, while I was still not a seasoned director of photography, that I understood what découpage means for a director. The fact that he left me alone didn’t stop me from being directed and I was conscious of this. (Consequently, for Les Enfants jouent à la Russie , I even went alone to Moscow to film some shots—including the memorable one of the young woman who crosses the Moscow train station in an Anna Karenina dress—with the certainty that the director was still there.) The solitude I felt, despite the presence of François Musy and Les Rita Mitsouko, was especially intimidating when I had to make decisions. But, for me, that was never the equivalent of the director not being there.
A director, in effect, is not someone who decides ex abrupto to be a director. It’s also someone who is accorded this position by a crew or a producer. It’s kind of like an analyst. In this sense, I’ve almost always felt myself directed.
EMMANUEL BURDEAU: The way an actor might be?
CHAMPETIER: I’ve often thought, with Benoît Jacquot, that technicians were directed like actors. Major directors, like Suwa and others, don’t simply direct what is happening in front of the camera, but everything behind it too: the set, its rhythm, the technical, material and human presence. This is the reason why the choice of tools is important, because the tools determine the gestures of the mise-en-scène and therefore the-mise-en-scène itself.
I think that even if certain directors may be unconscious of the technical side, creative flashes happen to them that we cannot go against. For example, Claude Lanzmann only shot films on 16mm or Super 16, very long documentaries that required enormous amounts of film. He wanted to shoot The Last of the Unjust on 35mm, which might seem surprising in the digital age.
Well, I know that to film Theresienstadt in 35 mm today was to give it an evocative power that the film needed. At a given moment, you can’t resist something that may seem difficult to justify technically and logistically, because the director’s choice is going to end up dominating the film. For Lanzmann’s film, if the decision to shoot on 35mm seems weighty, we made out really well with the Aaton Penelope. Same thing for Léos Carax’s Holy Motors, which didn’t need different equipment, though the film would undoubtedly have integrated it…
BURDEAU: Godard has a reputation of being one of the filmmakers who knows the technical side best. Had the choice of film stocks brought up earlier been decided together?
CHAMPETIER: Everything was decided together. On set, JLG is one of the only people I know who sometimes wants to move the tripod, to adjust the height, the focus as if the shot depended on it. He tilts it, shifts it around to get a “Jean-Luc Godard frame” that is no one else’s frame. One evening, in the car, coming back from watching the dailies, I remember asking him: “But how is it that when you frame a shot, it’s so obviously a Jean-Luc Godard shot?” He said to me, “The difference between me and other people is that I frame the world (cadrer) and other people encircle it (encadrer).” Sure, it’s a typical Jean-Luc Godard saying, but not so much so, either. The proof is that, for example, it’s a 1:1.33 film.
BURDEAU: The frame is almost square.
CHAMPETIER: Almost square, yes, but the films were distributed in 1.66 because many theaters were equipped with 1.66 screens, wider screens. Nevertheless, JLG and I always framed for both aspect ratios, 1.33 and 1.66.
At certain moments, I saw perfectly what Jean-Luc was leaving in the extra part of the frame, above and below, which was part of the 1.33 frame. If I changed certain things, he immediately noticed. It was a like a magic reserve of the frame that only existed for us since the film would be projected in 1.66… So, the idea, for him, that the frame is not the perimeter, is not the surrounding, is not the framing but the force, the energy of the shot—and very often a luminous energy—is absolutely right.
Very often we stop at the sayings and tell ourselves: “Another Godard saying.” In reality there are quite a few things behind them. In any case, I find this expression exact and I understand it intimately: “I frame the world, other people encircle it…” You know, it’s like people who we say have a direct relationship to the audience. Godard has a direct relationship to what he looks at. This direct relationship makes it so that the heart of the shot—its center, its energy—immediately grabs you. It doesn’t really matter what happens around it, that doesn’t change the meaning.
The colors in Godard’s films also take part in this direct trajectory, notably primary colors. It’s easy to see in this clip, for example, with that garage and with the yellow Ferrari that he didn’t choose at random and around which the red cuts. He needs this, the chromatic energy. He needs it like a painter. It nourishes him.
Godard, who is very nearsighted, often plays with his vision problems. For example, he takes off his glasses and puts them back on as if there were two ways of seeing the world: a way of seeing it through nearsightedness, meaning out of focus, and a way of seeing it corrected. A nearsighted person sees volumes, not lines: light before shapes. This is also what makes this direct trajectory possible. Finally, as I was saying earlier about the spectator’s position, Godard has a spiritual relationship with light. And I, also being nearsighted, I think that this constraint is one of the reasons we managed to understand each other. But we’ve never talked about this: this is me theorizing a little here…
BURDEAU: You quoted one of Godard’s expressions, “I frame the world, other people encircle it.” Did he only talk to you in these kinds of expressions or was a personal relationship formed? It’s an embarrassing question, but I must not be the only one to wonder about it.
CHAMPETIER: It’s true that we spoke to each other very little on set. But that obviously didn’t stop us from creating a personal relationship.
I met him for the first time on the set of Détective, in the Saint-Lazare Hotel. I had been sent by Alain Bergala for Cahiers du cinéma to take set photos for a couple of weeks. Bruno Nuytten was the director of photography for the film and I could see the appalling way Godard was treating him.
Strangely, this didn’t put me on Nuytten’s side. Basically, through this behavior, I learned a lot, and everything Godard was saying seemed incredibly right. But his way of saying it wasn’t right and that was part of the show. I put my finger on one of JLG’s qualities, which is his extraordinary aptitude for paradox.
Through the many photos I took during the shoot, I realized that Godard had a tactile relationship to the things around him. He touched everything: a curtain, an actor, an object, the camera. This seemed so blatant to me that a series of photos around this theme appeared in Cahiers du cinéma that could have been called “Godard performs with his hands.” I brought them to him, telling him, “I’m not sure that you’re the intellectual that everyone describes. I find you very manual.” That must have amused him.
He had me come to Switzerland and Anne-Marie Miéville more or less championed me. Maybe I’ll manage to write about this period someday, despite the fact that my notes were lost in a fire. I can nevertheless try to talk about our relationship through the place of the camera that, I believe, is different on a JLG set.
There’s a certain tendency on sets to elevate the camera to a position of power, phallic power we might say. In any case it was very clear when I started out. I accept that the camera is an organ, but for me it’s more of a reception organ: it receives and feels. Godard and Suwa use and interrogate the camera’s position differently than other people.
There is something out of the ordinary about directing, something abnormal. I think you can only feel legitimate when other people put you in this situation. Suwa manages to do it, but only to a certain point. Only until Machida Ko, who plays the writer in H/Story (2001), doesn’t understand where Suwa wants to go, and decides to go against him. Or until Hippolyte Girardot, in Yuki & Nina (2009), isn’t quite at ease with the idea that the real director is Suwa.
So it was in this situation of total mise-en-scène—that also touches the position of the camera and, therefore, me—that I found myself on Soigne ta droite. It was the first time that Godard was able to identify technology with a young woman. A little insolence, even some pranks, went hand in hand at the same time with a fair amount of instinct and a certain suppleness that a male crewmember wouldn’t have had. Above all, there wasn’t a power struggle.
I’d say that it was maybe the first time for Godard that technology could be feminine.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’m shocked you can differentiate a woman and a man’s position. Can you talk more about that?
CHAMPETIER: Maybe I’m shocking. A man isn’t a woman and a woman isn’t a man.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Still, there’s a certain equality.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Between men and women.
CHAMPETIER: I’ve never experienced it like that. In the era when I felt the desire to shoot films, no men had that job. I mean, no women... What a Freudian slip!
BURDEAU: There are since then.
CHAMPETIER: Yeah, but that’s due to a series of coincidences and something that goes beyond film that’s related to society.
When I started at the IDHEC (Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies), I said to myself that if I wanted to make films, I first needed to understand how they function and to know exactly what tool I’d need for that. It happened that at this time, this tool, for me, could only be the camera. There were at that time no crew positions for women. Everything had to be conquered and women's movements were part of this conquest. Today I would no longer think the same thing. The tool of cinema can just as easily be money, actors, a script. This is also what makes it so that each director has his area of expertise: each one identifies with a different tool.
Doing the technical work alone, without a masculine crew, like for Soigne ta droite, hardened me extraordinarily and taught me to master the tools as precisely as possible. But when I had to direct crews of five, ten, fifteen, even twenty men, who had to be asked to set up lights, to set up dolly tracks in the rushed system demanded by a day of shooting where time is money, I can tell you that the difference between a man and a woman makes itself felt. It’s a matter of experiences belonging to each period. A young female DP today doesn’t experience the same things in the same way.
However, even now, I don’t think that a female cameraperson has access to budgets equivalent to those of male crew members, or that she masters as many tools and conditions as they do. I would also have liked, and I’d still like, to be at the head of really big $15-20 million projects but no, there’s still no equality. On the other hand, I think that it’s easier for a woman to direct than to be a DP or a grip, simply because in that case she’s carried by a crew.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Was this “opening” not facilitated by the fact that you were “alone as a crew member” during the shoot? While if you had immediately been with fifteen people, it would have been more difficult?
CHAMPETIER: What you’re saying is absolutely right. I remember, too, a photo of the bar in the Concorde Saint-Lazare Hotel where Détective was being shot: JLG is alone at a table and the whole crew is at the bar... He wasn’t crazy about the group mentality of film sets. He’s too timid, too paradoxical, too wonderful for that.
Godard hired me for a year and a half. At that time, he was putting his small company Peripheria together and he needed to put all the elements of this small company in place: the secretary, the assistant director, the cameraperson, the sound engineer... In reality I stayed with him for two years, during which we worked on Soigne ta droite, of course, Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma (the film talks about, moreover, this small company, Peripheria), Puissance de la parole, On s'est tous défilés, as well as the beginning of King Lear. Then he began Histoire(s) du cinéma.
At the end of two years, Godard’s deep nostalgia ended up becoming difficult to live with. As I was saying earlier during the introduction to my film, Berthe Morisot (2012), Godard is a genius and it’s tiring to work with a genius. You’d like to live, to make mistakes. You’d like to be able to use words with a kind of lightness. For Godard, words can get dramatic very quickly. I can’t at all manage to talk about him with the humor and distance of those who’ve only spent a day or a week with him. And I’m sorry for that. I’ve experienced his solitude and his melancholy very deeply, as well as things people are too quick to talk about: his relationship to Judaism, his way of wanting to ask questions that upset everyone.
Well, I’m getting lost… I went to work with Doillon, then with Jacquot and I worked with Garrel on J’entends plus la guitare (1991). Godard and Anne-Marie were blown away by the film. So he called to offer me to come back and work on Hélas pour moi (1993).
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What, for Godard, could have interested him in a girl like you?
CHAMPETIER: Coming out of the screening of Berthe Morisot, I was talking with a young guy in the audience about Manet, played by the actor Malik Zidi. He was saying to me that Manet’s genius is in his power, which, according to him, Malik Zidi didn’t possess.
It was an interesting discussion. I don’t think that a major director has power. Exchanging with someone young is maybe a sign of power—although I’m not really sure about that—but certainly not if that young person is feminine because femininity is not powerful, unless it’s sometimes maternal power.
I believe that power discourages something in a director. I won’t go back to Jean Renoir... At a given moment, for the cinema to come to life, the order we impose and establish isn’t enough. There has to be disorder in the order, casualness, things have to be allowed to live.
I can’t manage to say “Nobuhiro Suwa.” I’ve always said “Suwa” and a lot of people find that funny. Is it a first name? A last name? It could even be a concept. In one of your articles, you even twist the name by its near-homonym when talking about a “cinema of the Self” [Translator’s note: self in French, “soi,” sounds like Suwa]. That says a lot.
I met “Suwa” after the project he wanted to do with Robert Kramer fell through, following the latter’s death. He wanted to meet someone who’d worked with Jean-Luc Godard, although he himself didn’t believe that it was possible.
Michiko Yoshitake talked to him about me. She’s a woman I really like, who had come to France to do an article during the production of Soigne ta droite, who was Suwa’s translator and then producer. Suwa then sent me his first film, 2/Duo (1997), which I think is extraordinary and is now distributed by Capricci.
Strangely, 2/Duo makes me think more of Rivette than Godard, especially in its representation of love sickness. What’s beautiful in the film is that the Japanese nationality isn’t a hindrance to the expression of feelings and universal situations between the man and the woman.
Suwa asked me to work on M/Other (1999). Despite all the admiration I had for the project, I couldn’t manage to contain a kind of fear of shooting a film so far from my home, and this fear was strong enough to stop me from working with him. Time passed. A year later, we met up again at Cannes where M/Other had been selected for the Director’s Fortnight. I came out of the screening stunned, having experienced it as a violent aesthetic shock, especially because two-thirds of the film had been underexposed. The film takes place almost entirely in darkness.
As a director of photography, underexposure is one of the things I’m looking for in films. That moment where the contrast ratio is so weak and subtle that we no longer know what we’re seeing on screen. Technology always betrays us in these cases. What film allows us to get, this darkness, this mystery, digital makes possible because of the really high sensitivity of its capture chip. I have to confess that it’s the only place where I respect what digital can bring us—the only place where I’m surprised and where, sometimes, I admire what it’s possible to obtain with it.
In discovering Suwa’s film at Cannes, I wondered how it was possible to go so far with such a fine contrast ratio. Only a great director of photography could have been able to do that, and I really wanted to meet him. So that was the first thing I did when I got to Japan for the filming of H/Story (2001), which I had accepted to do in the meantime: I went to meet the director of photography for M/Other, Masami Inomoto.
I then realized that I was actually dealing with a really inexperienced director of photography, and that this inexperience had made the risk possible. The Japanese film lab even had to recalibrate its machines to extract the little amount of information on the negative. That’s what gives the image a sumptuous, somber and brilliant quality all at once.
I was liberated in realizing that inexperience could be a source of creation. I couldn’t stop at my admiration for Inomoto, I had to experiment myself with underexposure. Many inventions in cinema result from unconscious gestures or from this kind of risk taking. Consequently, for Un couple parfait (2005), I worked a lot on creating these weak contrast ratios, and on using light sources in the shot that blind you and direct you at the same time—a paradox that is also related to nearsightedness.
The conceptual force of the beginning of Un couple parfait will always stun me. Suwa manages to make the whole film hold together through one simple situation: that of a couple who vacillates in the face of another person who is getting married. From the very first minutes, he makes us feel this vacillation. Few directors can do this, especially when there’s almost no dialogue and everything is improvised.
We were supposed to shoot this shot on a Monday morning, crossing Paris in between other cars, from Unesco through the Place de la Trinité, after passing over the Seine. All of it done in one shot for the entire ride!
I absolutely wanted to film the moving reflections of Paris on the window of the taxi that Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Bruno Todeschini are sitting in. To do this, the avenues had to be wide and empty so that the two cars could drive next to each other and the sun have to be in our back. The reflections would then be visible. I wasn’t using what a lot of directors of photography would have demanded, which is either a camera car or a camera mounted on the car. Therefore, filming this shot on a Monday morning was impossible.
I moved the shooting to a Sunday morning, which was also a holiday. We were then able, from the beginning of the shot to the Trinité, to film without a cut or without stopping and making the shot fall apart. A shot, in effect, holds up or doesn’t hold up. Stops at red lights were immediately taken into account by the actors, who used them in their performances. They are almost naturally integrated into the shot.
For this film, I worked with a ⅔” chip camera, which I really liked. These first video cameras have a small sensor, giving a depth of field similar to that of Super 16. We also used Zeiss lenses larger than the ones I usually use: 24mm, 16mm, and, in this clip, a 12mm.
BURDEAU: The film was shot with two different kinds of cameras.
Indeed. I hope I’m not mistaken on the dates, but I believe that Suwa had seen the film I’d done with Amos Gitai, Promised Land (2004). He was all for using other tools than those he had used for his first two films, 2/Duo and M/Other. For H/Story, already, I had proposed he use the zoom. The zoom allows a more sensual relationship to the actor, a proximity that is sometimes like a caress . The technical devices of H/Story are the zoom and the color white.
For Un couple parfait, Suwa wanted me to use a small camera but I resisted that idea. I knew how to use it in the disorder of Gitai’s film, even if it gave me a hard time. Basically, for these small cameras to work, you need to stage in 360 degrees. Or you need—like in A l’est de moi (2008), Bojena Horackova’s film that I was the director of photography on—for this to take part in the voyage, that it take part in the trip. But there, I didn’t think it was possible. I couldn’t see myself with a “heart camera,” as I call them, meaning a camera carried at the end of your arm in dealing with the intimity of two people.
So I suggested that Suwa use the Panasonic Varicam with large lenses that give the frame the feeling of a stage, which is a way for me to make the offscreen space felt. I had a feeling that Valeria Bruni Tedeschi would do really well with it and take possession of it, as we can see in the clip.
On the other hand, we agreed on the idea that the small camera would be used when the characters were alone, which was about three or four times in the film. These are moments of psychological peaks during which we get the impression of being in the actor’s head, like when Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is at the Rodin museum and understands that by separating from this man she’s losing something of herself.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: With improvised scenes, how is the composition of the frame done? How is the camera position decided if everything has to stay open?
CHAMPETIER: Suwa gave us the situation. With a good knowledge of the location, two bedrooms for example, we knew more or less where the actors were going to go, what could happen. We project an idea, even if it’s in a vague way. It’s like shaping something out of glaze. But that’s not possible without having a lot of faith in the offscreen space.
For Suwa, as for Godard—and they experiment with it in their own ways—the offscreen space is what holds the frame together. It’s like the sound, it’s a part of the narration. The beginning of Yuki & Nina (2009) rests, for example, on this play with the offscreen space, between the space of the children and that of the adults.
Knowing our tools and how to use them puts us in a kind of very sharp, extremely sensitive receptive state. It’s as if we had notes and were referring to them. I had to survey, camera in hand, all the corners and nooks of that bedroom, in order to understand the space and then set up the camera based on what could happen.
To quote Deleuze, cinema is time and space. We experimented with this in a particularly strong manner in Un couple parfait. That’s what Suwa works with. He holds the shot until the moment it’s going to fall apart. We may even think that, in the second part of the first clip, when we’re in the bedroom, that the shot is going to fall apart before the cut, when Valeria Bruni Tedeschi closes the door, goes to bed and Bruno Todeschini comes back. We can really see how Suwa stretches and holds the shot until it’s fragile, until the moment where it no longer holds together. I hope that what I’m saying isn’t too abstract.
BURDEAU: Was the fact that there is a door—and that its closing is a visually and dramatically strong moment—planned?
CHAMPETIER: Absolutely not. We knew there was a door. Did Suwa say that we could close it or not? Maybe, and the actors used it. Time creates the rest.
BURDEAU: The door in this scene evokes the previous one, the first in the film. In both cases, space is more open, more closed in on itself. First an open, then closed, door whose closing is surprising, almost like a theatrical flourish. Then, a window with the city reflected in it to the point of almost making the faces disappear. There’s the same work on the depth of field.
CHAMPETIER: You’re right, I hadn’t thought of that.
This goes back to what I was saying at the beginning: that moment where the discussions extend the life of the film, where magic takes over. You can see this, but I didn’t control it at any moment. During the shoot, I was obsessed by my reflections and by the length of the shot, congratulating myself on the technical exploit. At no moment did I imagine that this shot would open the film.
Your comment is interesting because it’s exactly the place where the tool and the choice of the tool become an act of mise-en-scène. This explains part of the reason why I didn’t let Suwa use a small camera. I told him, “No, I don’t think these small, handheld cameras are the right tools for the film.”
It was instead necessary to make the space belong to the actors, which would have been impossible with a small camera. I would have had to get involved between them. I would have had to enter in their space, becoming a kind of frontier. Instead, I needed to leave the space entirely to them.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: In Suwa’s films, children perform as actors but they also literally play: they have toys. What do you do to not direct them and keep the right distance with them?
BURDEAU: You’re referring to the museum scene in Un couple parfait.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, the kid who’s a revelation for Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s character. In M/Other, the couple’s kid is also pivotal, on every level, but he does it between the lines and without really acting.
BURDEAU: You’re also undoubtedly thinking about Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996).
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, that too. Jacques Doillon also acts in Un couple parfait, it all makes sense. What distance do you adopt? I imagine that there’s at least a rule, like never looking at the camera.
CHAMPETIER: The kid sees the camera but he doesn’t pay attention to it because his attention is somewhere else. This goes back to what I was saying earlier: with a little camera I would have had to get closer to the kid, to become kind of a partner, to act, and the kid would have undoubtedly noticed me. Here, it was instead necessary to move away and accept the frontier. On the contrary, for Ponette we first needed to include the kids in the game, in the mise-en-scène, and then together we became one and the same. So these questions are part of the choice of the tool and its mise-en-scène.
For Jacques Doillon’s Ponette, we had a huge camera. It was 35mm, an Arri with 1000ft magazines, if my memory’s correct, with a really imposing zoom lens, the whole thing on a dolly most of the time. It weighed like two or three children! We were constantly moving because shots in Doillon’s films are always composed, very staged and the children take part in this staging. The beginning of Ponette had been a beginning of mutual acclimation between the children and the camera so that the monster was a part of the performance.
We had to make the camera lose its sphinx-like stature. From that moment it was able to become as anonymous as a table or a chair. It was matter of demystifying it. Of knocking over the technical myth. That’s what goes back to Godard. I take a sneaky pleasure in doing that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Do you consider DSLRs, like the 5D or 7D, to be cameras?
CHAMPETIER: Everything is a camera. The film chooses its tool. Nice cameras come around every ten years. It’s like cars. Do you remember the DS 27? When I’m talking about small cameras, the Panasonic DVX100, which I used on Benoit Jacquot’s A tout de suite (2004), Amos Gitai’s Promised Land, certain shots in Un couple parfait, I’m talking about an object that I love. I had customized it in such a way so that I could adjust both the focus and the aperture. I also worked like this on Léos Carax’s Merde (2008).
It was really a great camera, an object with a ton of possibilities. Like a lot of Aaton cameras, actually. I’m thinking of 16mm and 35mm cameras, the XTR, the A Minima. When you put them on your shoulder, they conform to your body, like a cat. I could say the same for the Aaton Penelope which I used for Xavier Beauvois’ film, Des Hommes et des dieux (2010). It allowed me to have a physical proximity to the monks and to be able to be in their cells while being almost in the walls. It allowed me to go back in and come out of the picture. And, at the same time, it can go on a crane or do tracking shots. These are cameras that have a kind of progressive quality, a mobility, an intrinsic intelligence.
A camera that’s turned into a technical monster bores me tremendously. I find it horrifying as much for the director as for the actor and crew. When the camera moves—not in space, when it moves in volume—there’s something that becomes human, fun. It’s an object that gets modified. Suddenly, it’s as if the camera were putting on a hat. It puts it on and takes it off. There’s something lively and inventive about it that cannot be nailed down.
In an amazing documentary by Pierre-André Boutang, Henri Langlois says: “People who haven’t seen the cinema from 1925 to 1929 haven’t seen anything.” Towards the end of its existence, silent cinema acquired complete freedom. But when talking films began, enormous blimps had to be put on the cameras, they were so heavy that they could no longer be moved.
The invention, the movement, the mobility of cameras in Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) or in so many other silent films from the same time, 1927 and 1928, is prodigious. Henri Langlois follows this by talking about film as a “vagabond’s art”: “Cinema has always been made for and by vagabonds and the only one that I know today is Jean-Luc Godard.”
BURDEAU: We’re going to see a clip from Merde. Is Léos Carax a vagabond?
CHAMPETIER: Yes. He is a vagabond. He’s also obsessive. He’s an obsessive vagabond.
CHAMPETIER: So I shot with the Panasonic DVX100.
When I met Léos Carax, I met someone who was a bit tired, who wasn’t convinced, someone who’d lost his tools. He asked me to work on the film, without certainty. I think that he has a somewhat painful relationship with cinema. I’m guessing that Michiko Yoshitake, the film’s producer, was behind all this. I let it happen, but I wasn’t so pushy about this project.
Then we did some tests with Denis Lavant, wrapped in green fabric, who tried to invent his way of walking. We did them on the Avenue de France in Paris, from a car. And suddenly the film appeared to all three of us, from the place each of us occupied: the possibility for Denis Lavant of adopting this walk and this extremely particular physical attitude; Léos Carax managing to deal with all of this when we’d be in Tokyo, where public places are off limits for film shoots; and for me, the idea of trusting this tool.
For those of you who know Tokyo, shooting in Ginza and shooting on the Shibuya bridge is an exploit. In the first case, when Denis Lavant runs through Ginza, we had to rehearse up to eight times, in different parks each time, because what we were doing was illegal. We also had to place the extras ourselves, predicting the distances they’d have in Ginza.
In the first sequence from Merde, I’m sitting in a wheelchair with the camera. A grip is pulling me backwards. We decided on the timing. We were never able to have all the elements of the shot at the place we were going to shoot. It was kind of like an abstract, technical composition. One day, we threw ourselves into the shot. It was a real commando mission: Denis gets out of the car, I’m in my wheelchair with a blanket over my knees, the camera underneath, like a paralyzed European that a Japanese person is taking around Ginza. Then we begin the shot, as quickly as possible, for more than 500 meters.
We did the same thing in Shibuya, with the exception that I wasn’t on a wheelchair but walking back, holding the camera, adjusting the focus and aperture at the same time, as I had to learn to do with this camera.
I have a special place in my heart for this film because I think it gave Léos Carax his confidence back. Some can think that he doesn’t work with naturalistic emotions or that he slips them behind aesthetic emotions. Still, for me, giving a filmmaker his confidence back is a major victory. Léos Carax had lost his tools, we let him rediscover them, and then to prolong his gesture. That’s where Holy Motors (2012) comes from.
That’s one of the major moments of technical harmony that I’ve experienced.