Cannes Interview: Caroline Champetier
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Annette (Leos Carax, 2021). Set photos by Kris Dewitte/Facts of Emotions. Stills courtesy of Amazon Studios
Few cinematographers have a filmography as wide-ranging and impressive as Caroline Champetier, whose collaborations—with Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lanzmann, Jacques Rivette, Arnaud Desplechin, and Leos Carax, among others—span four decades of French cinema. Annette, Carax’s long-awaited English-language follow-up to 2012’s Holy Motors, marks both the director and Champetier’s first feature-length musical.
Written by Ron and Russell Mael of the pop-rock band Sparks, the film centers upon a celebrity couple in Los Angeles—stand-up comedian Henry (Adam Driver) and opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard)—whose passionate yet destructive relationship seals the fate of their gifted young daughter, Annette. Featuring very little spoken dialogue, Annette unfolds as a haunting succession of alternately playful and poignant songs (performed and recorded by the actors on set) and lush, expressionistically lit images fluidly shot by Champetier in tune with the score.
In anticipation of Annette’s premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Champetier welcomed me into her Parisian home for a conversation about the making of Annette and her artistic partnership with Carax. What emerges from the cinematographer’s meticulous breakdowns of some of the film’s key sequences is a sense of collective craftsmanship rare in contemporary cinema.
How did your collaboration on Holy Motors inform the way you and Carax approached Annette’s cinematography?
Holy Motors and Annette are both films that we conceived in units, one sequence at a time. Having worked with Godard, I come from such a school. It’s a method that has helped me tremendously to envision a film ever since Arnaud Desplechin’s The Sentinel , which was a difficult movie to make with its 75 sets.
Some cinematographers are versatile, while others impose a brand. For instance, I recently watched the trailer for Cruella: it’s interesting, but the visuals are totally formatted. It seems like there’s a kind of overall “patina,” that everything is unified, whereas a film like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon provides the audience with different sensations in each sequence.
What’s particular about Annette is that it was long in the making. When LC [Leos Carax] told me Annette’s story in 2015, he already had an idea of how to make it. Except for certain exteriors that he needed in the U.S., he wanted to shoot the movie in Europe and had Parisian theaters in mind. That’s undoubtedly the hallmark of an independent director: to conceive the form of their shoot as much as that of their film.
Annette’s prologue echoes that of Holy Motors through its self-reflexive elements, such as the presence of Carax himself as director. It’s also formally reminiscent of that film’s musical interlude, in which a group of musicians follows Denis Lavant’s lead in a church.
Annette’s prologue is an expansive act of mise en scène on LC’s part. It’s a sequence shot that begins inside a recording studio—the legendary The Village Studios in Los Angeles—and steps out onto Santa Monica Boulevard, until the actors—Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg—put on their characters’ costumes and take off into the L.A. night. As the crew—the sound mixer, Erwan Kerzanet; the first assistant camera, Inès Tabarin; our terrific American steadicam operators; and me—we had to make the shot possible.
LC doesn’t talk about his motivations, which are not always conscious anyway. He lets a lot of things happen in the filmmaking process. But he often provides us with powerful references and delivers them without comment. It’s our job to follow up with other references, then initiate the creative gesture. For Annette’s opening sequence, LC showed us Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wedding video, in which he grabs the mike, starts singing, and calls all the wedding participants to his side. It’s a real show—a gift for the bride, who stands there laughing and applauding. This wedding video made us understand the momentum that LC wanted the film to have, both for the audience and for us, the crew. We were also a gang and had to remain one until the end.
Marion Cotillard as Ann
You often compare your work as a cinematographer to that of a soloist in an orchestra. Did shooting Annette heighten the connection you weave between your profession and music?
During the shoot, Sparks’s music led the rhythm of the camera. But before that, I had too much to deal with to be really interested in the musical process. Music was present as a pleasant and demanding companion. On Annette, what’s orchestrated equipment-, lighting-, and framing-wise is utterly different from scene to scene. Our sequences were so ambitious artistically and technically, but also in terms of the actors’ and extras’ performances, that they required a very rigorous preparation that we continued during the shoot. Week by week, we would say to ourselves: “Oh la la, we’ll feel better when the storm is over.”
On set, I would joke around, telling everyone I was making a silent film. Erwan, who manages to put everything into words and is a friend I trained on Holy Motors, and whom I trust deeply, told me after seeing Annette: “I understand now why you said that. There’s indeed an expressionism to the cinematography that belongs to it alone. So you probably needed that kind of visual isolation.”
The contrast between Ann’s delicateness and Henry’s violence seems to be the throughline of the film’s visual universe.
LC showed us a German TV interview with Romy Schneider, in which she was very intimidated and inhibited, as a reference for the character of Ann. Then, another actor, Burkhard Driest—a “bad boy” in leather—arrived on set. There was a palpable tension in this archival interview between fragility, on the one hand, and virility and potential violence on the other.
In Annette, Ann is a lyric soprano who embodies music and dies at the end of each opera. That’s probably why Ann’s operas are much more abstract than Henry’s stand-up performances. He has an audience, while she is alone on stage in front of an indeterminate audience, seen only outside the theater and from behind when she bows.
Theatrical darkness links their two universes, and a lot of scenes happen at night. So my question was: “Do I let darkness pervade the film, and how do I resist it?” It wasn’t through light, but through color. I saw Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn’s miniseries shot by Darius Khondji, whose saturated colors I liked. That was one of the first things I said to my gaffer, Wim Temmerman: “I’d like there to be super colorful and saturated sequences, and for that saturation to reach the actor, too.” So we placed Astera lights on the screen and doubled them up with SkyPanels of the same color to light the actor. It was my intuition that I couldn’t let the film drift toward a sad darkness—it had to be living, colorful, and luminous.
Ann has a magnificent opera scene in which she enters a forest revealed by the raising of an iron curtain. How did you create that sequence, which evokes German Romanticism?
For a long time, LC wanted us to make a real fake forest in a theater—with mounds of moss and tree roots appearing—to represent the dangerous universe Ann enters through her relationship with Henry. In addition to some paintings of German Romanticism, there were Gustave Doré’s illustrations in LC’s references. But none of the theaters we visited in Northern Europe had the depth to create two sets. So we decided to film the scene in a real forest and incorporate it with a green screen in the theater where we shot, the Concertgebouw of Bruges. The green screen simply allowed the transition from one space to another, from the theater stage to the forest.
I suggested we shoot day for night in the forest. Day for nights are traditionally blue, because they were done on the blue layer of film by overexposing the negative to boost the contrasts. LC doesn’t like the blue of the ’70s/’80s. So I thought of a green day for night: an artifice that seduced LC and yielded its strangeness to the sequence.
Florian Sanson, the production designer, conceived the foreground—the bands of colorful fabric we see in Ann’s opera—as an abstract forest. Florian is very mindful of the lightness of things due to necessity, but also to maintain a sense of visual suppleness, and I was very fond of his idea of using vertical blue stripes of paper: they produce a feeling of stability without heaviness. We backlit the set with a large light source in the flies, stage left. The green day for night was all the more justified by the blue of the theater forest.
Caroline Champetier, Annette, and Estelle Charlier in Annette’s bedroom. Photo: Kris Dewitte/Facts of Emotions
Annette is revealed to be a puppet in an imaginative twist that pushes the narrative toward fantasy. Was she always meant to be played by a puppet?
I think LC came up with the idea of the puppet because it was impossible to meet the constraint of depicting a child from birth to age 6. In 2015, he took me and Julie Gouet [one of the assistant directors] to see the shows of choreographer Gisèle Vienne, whose work draws a lot on the art of puppetry. And then we met Annette’s puppeteers, Estelle Charlier and Romuald Collinet.
LC is very close to childhood. He loves toys. We are currently preparing his exhibition at Beaubourg [the Centre Pompidou in Paris], where there will be a pinball machine, a jukebox, and probably a praxinoscope. So it became an obvious choice to gravitate toward a puppet. Afterward, we had to believe in it against all odds.
There’s a dreamlike moment in which Henry turns on the rotating bedside lamp he bought for Annette, and we see the child’s shadow singing on her bedroom ceiling among colorful moon and star motifs.
To produce the effect you’re talking about, which is attributed to the small lamp in the film, Romuald Collinet’s team created a giant magic lamp with a diameter of 80 cm and a height of 1.2 m. It had gobos—cut-outs of moons and stars—in front of which were placed color gels, and it projected those motifs onto the walls and ceiling of Annette’s bedroom.
The idea of making Annette’s shadow sing was found in the editing room: it’s an image we shot almost a year after the shoot and which was superimposed into the scene. When the lockdown hit in March 2020, we had more or less reached the end of editing [with the aim of showing the movie at] the Cannes Film Festival. But then LC and Nelly [Quettier, the editor] went to a house in the South of France and continued editing and polishing things up for three months. They accomplished a real work of craftsmanship. From that moment on, I saw the film become totally organic: the Cannes 2021 version is different from that of 2020. Every director has an area of excellence. I think it’s editing in LC’s case. He and Nelly manage to lend an incredible fluidity—often through superimpositions and fades—to successions of scenes whose method of creation is very different.
The scene in which Henry and Annette wash up on a beach after the storm is pure artifice.
The storm and the beach are the two scenes in which we took the most risks to make them work. But while the storm was shot in an improvisational manner after a lot of conceptualization, the beach—a more baroque scene—required different stages of production. LC’s demands for the beach were that Annette should move, because it’s the first time she sings, and that there should be water for Ann’s spirit to disappear into. So our questions were: “Are we shooting the sequence for real? If so, where is our Californian beach in Northern Europe?” Or else: “Where do we hide the puppeteer who will operate Annette’s puppet?” We finally decided to go to a studio, which was a big financial commitment for us, because it was a technically extraordinary but really expensive studio with a water tank. Water tanks are often built outside, but this studio had been designed by someone who was an expert in scuba diving.
Since we had limited studio time, Florian had to assemble and take down the beach set quickly. So he came up with the idea of doing cracked desert floors, like slabs arranged as a puzzle, with a small slope leading down to the water as a hiding place for the puppeteer. As for me, I thought the only way to make this look like infinity was to abstract the space through darkness, so to black out the studio and play around with fog.
Then there’s the moon, which is a VFX insertion of a moon I had seen in Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child. In fact, it was a sun shot day for night by cinematographer Yves Cape, which Bonello used as a moon, and which I had found very beautiful. So we asked him to lend us the shot. It was an inconstant moon, with clouds passing by. We had to come up with a pulsating light system with rises and falls. We set up a huge backlight—reinforced by other spotlights in the middle of the studio—to represent the moon’s glow. Then we used a very large tungsten light source on a dimmer to cast the shadow of Ann’s spirit upon Henry on the ground.
Thomas Berliner, Inès Tabarin, Caroline Champetier, Marion Cotillard, and Leos Carax on the beach set. Photo: Kris Dewitte/Facts of Emotions
Ann’s spirit looks more like the living dead than a ghost.
That’s exactly what LC sought to obtain from makeup artist Bernard Floch and costume designer Pascaline Chavanne: the living dead. He wanted her to have small horns on her shoulders and for water to drip from her, since she comes out of the sea in the beach scene. Bernard and Pascaline developed a texture out of silicone and mixed it with lubricant to create the spirit’s wet appearance. Her costume—composed of seaweed-like threads—was inspired by the work of Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen. Marion Cotillard was exceptionally professional. She had to spend hours with assistants who covered her with lubricant, and she wore rather high buskins [thick-soled lace boots] that made it difficult for her to walk.
Throughout your career, you’ve filmed iconic actresses like Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, and Barbara Sukowa. How would you describe your experience of filming Marion Cotillard in Annette?
When you film Deneuve, Huppert, or Sukowa, you know it’s them that you’re filming, whereas Marion Cotillard is incredibly versatile and disappears behind her characters. I remember a line from Keep Your Right Up , the first film I did with Godard: “An actor doesn’t like to make appearances. An actor loves to make disappearances.” Marion Cotillard has an extraordinary aptitude for disappearing, which LC used in a visionary way in Annette.
There’s a real osmosis between the camera and Adam Driver in Annette. Was it different for you to film an actor trained in the American method?
Yes, it was very impressive for me, getting to film an actor of that level. Adam Driver has a concentration and depth that prevailed on set. We were simply intimidated, and it wasn’t ideal to be intimidated when we had to make extremely precise technical gestures. I don’t have a close relationship with actors, whom I regard as the director’s objects-subjects. I address them formally and always ask the director if I can speak to them. I sometimes had conversations with Adam and would blush a lot. I think he enjoyed shooting Annette and felt our collective concentration, and to what extent we were using the camera to convey the strength he was bringing to the film.
Translated from French by Yonca Talu. Special thanks to production designer Florian Sanson and costume designer Pascaline Chavanne for additional details they provided regarding their work.
Yonca Talu is a film critic and filmmaker living in Paris. She grew up in Istanbul and graduated from NYU Tisch and the École Normale Supérieure.