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A Talk With Maestro Cinematographer Caroline Champetier

Picture of Graham Fuller
Film Editor
Updated: 18 October 2017
The French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) is saluting Caroline Champetier with a mini-season of films culled from the great French cinematographer’s illustrious career. Culture Trip got on the phone for an informal chat with this maestro of light, shade, and silky (or sometimes jagged) movement.

Culture Trip: As well as being a cinematographer, you are a director. Can you explain why you have favored the camera?

Caroline Champetier: So kind of you to think I’m a director—I don’t think so. I’ve just directed little films and TV movies, and they don’t have the same ambition as the films made by the directors I work with.

I think I went into cinematography because my father is an architect and I was always trained to think about what I’m looking at—and what I feel.

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Caroline Champetier and Leos Carax (front right) during the filming of Holy Motors | © Camille de Chenay

CT: Was it hard to make your way as a cinematographer?

CC: When I entered IDHEC [Institut Des Hautes Études Cinématographiques], there were no women at all in cinematography. There were no women directors. Some women were producers. The technical side of film was forbidden to us, but the 1970s was a very political time for women, as you know, and there was something pushing us to go to all these forbidden spaces. Your way is not just about you; it’s about the context and the period. I think I arrived at a time where women cinematographers were needed.

CT: You worked with Chantal Akerman on Toute une Nuit [1982]. As a feminist, did she influence you how to move forward in the industry?

CC: Yes. It was like a baptism. To be with her on my first movie, and then with Jean-Luc Godard—nobody can dream of much more.

Chantal also gave me something very important, which was to look very simply at the space in front of you when you’re shooting. I understood that very quickly.

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Aurore Clément in Toute Une Nuit | © World Artists

CT: The Brussels setting of Toute Une Nuit is realistic, but the blocking of the actors is stylized, so the images are almost like tableaux.

CC: It was a period where Chantal had worked with Pina Bausch and she wanted to experiment. She was completely haunted by that. The reason it’s a great movie is because it contains four different forms of expression: cinema, dance, painting, installations. I think it’s the first film where her images were so rich, diverse, and broad.

CT: Were you influenced by the French new wave?

CC: Not when I was growing up, because I grew up with no pictures [movies]. I was in a very religious family: my father was Catholic and my mother was Protestant. I was only exposed to museums and literature. But when I went to IDHEC, I saw all the movies at the same time and, of course, Godard’s were a shock. He would make a film without a story. The film is made up of what’s immediate, what things are just happening. And with Godard, they were always happening.

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Grandeur et Décadence d’un Petit Commerce de Cinéma | © Capricci Films

CT: Grandeur et Décadence d’un Petit Commerce de Cinéma [1986], which you shot for Godard, is a kind of modern film noir. It made me wonder if you’d studied Godard’s Alphaville [1965]?

CC: Yes, of course, but we didn’t speak about it. Alphaville is in black and white and Grandeur et Décadence is in color. What is certain is that there is something expressionistic going on with all shadows, though there’s something a bit arbitrary there. We were together on the set, and Godard was happy or not happy looking at my work very concentratedly. He directed me a bit, but he didn’t make any cultural references.

What is characteristic with Godard is that when he frames, it’s a Jean-Luc Godard shot. Why? Because he never frames just to enclose the shot, but to take something. That’s the reason you sometimes only see an actor’s mouth or the lower part of the face. There is no box for Godard—just the life. It’s very important to understand that because I think it’s the reason his films are so strong and so alive.

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Emmanuelle Devos and Emmanuel Salinger in La Sentinelle | © Strand Releasing

CT: Tell me about working with Arnaud Desplechin on La Sentinelle. The exterior Cold War scenes are like harsh news footage, but the interior shots are mellow.

CC: Arnaud was the first director from my generation that I worked with. It took me 10 years to have that experience, so it was like working with a brother. I was able to argue with him, and the first thing I told him and Pascal Caucheteux, the producer of La Sentinelle, was that it wasn’t one movie, but many movies in one.

I said, “One movie is a rich movie with lots of light, one is a medical movie always with white light, one is like a short love story, and another is a film noir, so let’s find a different rhythm for each.” I’d seen Godard work like that, and I think this same reasoning was a good thing for La Sentinelle, too.

CT: Did you then approach Leos Carax’s Holy Motors as if it were ten movies in one?

CC: That was at a different time in my life, but on the point of logistics, the technique was exactly the same. To make many movies in a movie—and then to create the continuity and the meaning in the editing—you must be inventive and you must have imagination.

CT: You shot the Monsieur Merde [Denis Lavant] sequence in Holy Motors with a handheld camera?

CC: A wonderful camera—a Panasonic DVX-100. Every ten years, a good camera comes along for professionals.

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Denis Lavant as Monsieur Merde in Holy Motors | © Indomina Group

CT: Your panning and tracking shots are often very delicate or smooth. I’m less accustomed to you shooting in a rougher style.

CC: But Monsieur Merde is rough, no? The DVX is very little. I literally held it in my hand, not on my shoulders. I was working on the focus and aperture together, which is too many things for one person to do. But doing that gave me a result. I am working with Carax now on his next movie and he told me he saw Monsieur Merde some days ago [laughs]. I think Merde is Carax’s self-portrait.

CT: I was struck by how you shot the closed monastic orders of Of Gods and Men [2010] and The Innocents [2016] in such different styles.

CC: The monastery of Of Gods and Men is in the countryside, and the country is absolutely in the heart of these men. On the contrary, the nuns in The Innocents are enclosed in a convent, like prisoners. They have different lives, different deaths. In both cases, though, I was fascinated by the faces and got the closest I could to them. The inspiration for the monks was Rembrandt’s self-portraits. For The Innocents, the reference was [Ingmar] Bergman’s images of women and Vilhelm Hammershøi’s paintings.

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The Innocents | © Music Box Films

CT: You worked as a camera assistant on Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah [1985]. How did that experience affect you?

CC: When I worked with Claude, I think I was 20 or 21. I was friends with a lot of Jewish people, but I was ignorant about the Holocaust. Extermination was not in my family’s language. So when I came to this story, it opening the horrors of the world to me, but it totally made me.

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Barbara Sukowa in Hannah Arendt | © Zeitgeist Films

CT: Related to Shoah is Margarethe Von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt [2012], which is about Adolf Eichmann and “the banality of evil.” A realistic style must have seemed the only suitable choice.

CC: There’s some stylization with the lighting, but the most important thing was to give credibility to the character of Hannah Arendt. Working with this beautiful actress, Barbara Sukowa, was a dream. I think I accepted the movie because of her. She worked with [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, and for me Fassbinder is one of the greatest directors of the second half of the twentieth century. Margarethe worked with the actors, not with the shots, so she left me really free with the camera. The actors gave great inspiration for the compositions.

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Caroline Champetier | © Caroline Champetier, courtesy of French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)

CT: Finally, if you could have worked in the classic French cinema of the 1930s and 1940s, which director would you have most wanted to work with?

CC: The answer can change, but recently I saw many Jacques Tourneur movies, and I was amazed. I think he was a great, great director in a way he worked with light. Of course, I would have wanted to work with Jean Renoir, too!

Cinematographer Caroline Champetier: Shaping the Light continues at FIAF, 122 East 60th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tel: (212) 355-6100. Screenings: Toute une Nuit (Oct. 17), The Innocents (Oct. 24), Holy Motors (Oct. 24), Hannah Arendt (Oct. 31), Grandeur et Décadence d’un Petit Commerce de Cinéma (Oct. 31).