Champetier: "Interpretation Is The Beginning Of Everything"
Caroline Champetier, there’s no doubt that it is one of the most important events at Locarno70. Originally made for television, Jean-Luc Godard’s Grandeur et décadence d’un petit commerce de cinéma has now been given a new life, with a restored version ready for the cinema screen. You had two roles in the film, as director of photography and acting alongside Jean-Pierre Léaud. What are your thoughts now and what are your memories of back then?
Over thirty years after that first collaboration with JLG, a moment when I was also taking my first steps as a cinematographer, I think I had incredible luck, the chance to continue my apprenticeship working with a master director reckless enough to employ a young woman under thirty, who was sure that with his visual convictions and my small amount of knowledge we would come up with good shots. I also think it was “cunning,” as Mocky/Almereyda (which is Vigo’s name) comments about Léaud/Bazin that JLG chose a young woman so he could also film her for free. I have so many memories of this period, which was key to my development as a director of photography – too many to mention, but the dominant feeling is this fluidity in the collaboration with JLG, above all regarding the camera and the light: we crafted the shots like artisans.
Your filmography has been marked by a long collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard, a director known for his great technical skill. What was it like working with him on the construction of images while on set?
I worked from 1985 to 1987 then from 1992 to 1994 with JLG, the two periods were very different, the first more light-hearted than the second. To just say a little about what I understand of JLG’s vision: it was shaped by silent films. Langlois used to say that those who haven’t watched the cinema of 1925 to 1929 have seen nothing. Godard was born there, in an image 1.33 B&W centered, mostly fixed camera, then the color, simple, direct, often primaries: blue, green, red, which are the three layers of film stock. The other characteristic is that Godard is short-sighted, so he sees volume before line, in fact I am too, and that creates a very direct relation with light. One more thing about creating images for Godard, that’s the sheer power of the framing, he requests a camera position, a focal length, often 35mm or 50mm, and it’s immediately a Godard image, absolutely unmistakable. He doesn’t fuss over the limits of the frame, he aims at something, a face, a shape, without isolating it from the life around it: he frames but he doesn’t enclose.
You have said on more than one occasion that you have always wanted to maintain a viewer’s gaze, whether at the cinema or on set during the production of a film. How is possible to reconcile the perspective that a director wants to impose with that of a viewer who wants other perspectives?
Are you asking why composers don’t always interpret their own music? It’s because interpretation is the beginning of everything. I love this position of interpreter, to enter into the vision of the other, nourish it, take it further, absorb it, it’s an extraordinary way to connect to the other, the director, then also the spectator. It’s also the case that directors don’t impose, they propose, I also propose, together we move forward on a shared path created by the script and the weeks of joint preparation.
There has long been a prejudice against women taking on technical roles in film production. What resistance have you had to battle with during your career?
The profession of “cinematographer” isn’t an obvious one for women: a woman is not expected to have a direct, assertive regard, after centuries of keeping one’s eyes down…
Then there are the tools, they were heavy, and women historically engaged less with mechanics, and today they’re much lighter. I started at the right time, in the 70s when these questions of women’s liberation were important. On a personal level, like Camille Claudel (obviously, without comparing myself) I was born following a boy who died early, I carry a dead brother, that makes for a masculine part, which maybe made it easier for me to move into what was a non-feminine domain.
Over the years you have worked with a long series of great directors, from Rivette to Garrel, Gitai to Carax. With whom did you immediately establish a relationship, and with whom did it require a longer period of negotiation for the collaboration to bear fruit?
You could also mention Lanzmann, Beauvois, Suwa…. I have a very different relationship with each, I am an interpreter. There are periods more difficult than others, ups and downs, like in any relationship. We are used to people who speak many languages: I speak many cinematographic languages…
To what extent, and how, has the work of director of photography changed since the switch to digital? Are there different ways of thinking in analog and digital film?
This is a huge question, where one must give a very technical, detailed answer to avoid banality or imprecision. So I’ll just say, like in Visconti’s Il Gattopardo: “Things must change in order that they remain the same.”Lorenzo Buccella