French cinematographer Eric Gautier sums up his professional credo straightforwardly enough: “Never do the same thing twice—it’s just too boring.” As if to complicate the challenge, though, Gautier’s résumé is starting to look like a daisy chain of unlikely pairs: a couple of hardcore grand mal seizures (Leos Carax’s Pola X, Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy), a couple of dispatches from off-the-beaten-path London (Intimacy, Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn), a couple of fin de siècle costume dramas (Esther Kahn, Olivier Assayas’s Les Destinées).
Tackling his first two period pieces as consecutive assignments proved unexpectedly useful. “The films are so different that when I had an idea that didn’t work for one, I could usually use it for the other,” says Gautier. For Esther Kahn, the key was to shade the historical realism with the “interior darkness” of a psychological portrait. “In the end it becomes almost like a Hitchcock thriller,” he notes. “We also looked at Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander and Monika, who we thought of as a sister to Esther.” With Les Destinées, a melancholy life cycle bathed in glorious sunlight and barometrically attuned to seasonal change, Gautier says, “the most important thing was to show the passing of time. We figured out the shooting schedule very carefully to capture different times of the year, different times of the day. By the end, you should feel that 30 years have gone by.”
Assayas says he and Gautier studied the work of Pierre Renoir and other impressionists. “The film deals with such heavy subject matter, and we wanted to treat it lightly,” explains the director. “You know how it feels as if all the weight has been taken out of those paintings? There’s a vibration in the colors, and an incredible accuracy in the way they represent tiny moments. The landscape in this film is part of the storytelling, and Eric had a very dramaturgic vision of his images. He had a really precise system for lighting. Even inside the porcelain factory, he would light differently depending on whether it was summer or winter.”
Gautier‘s camera—stealthy, fleet, tropistically responsive to privileged moments and fugitive gestures—is a major character in almost every film he shoots. Unlike many DPs, he insists on operating the camera himself. “I always find inspiration in actors,” Gautier says. “If there’s something like a soul, the camera can capture it. That’s why I need to look through the lens myself.” In Les Destinées, Gautier’s thick-of-the-action method pays off breathtakingly in the film’s most labor-intensive scene—a ballroom dance shot handheld in the swirling, rustling midst of the revelers. Assayas says, “We wanted to be free to turn around, use mirrors, move from one room to another, have two cameras running. We couldn’t have anything on the floor, so Eric figured out this complex way to light the whole castle; he had guys working on it for weeks.”
Given the lithe glissandos and shimmering cadenzas of his imprint, it’s no surprise that Gautier’s first vocation was music. “As a teenager, I was deeply into jazz and classical piano,” he says. “But I think I had this intuition that in the cinema, there would be everything. Shooting a film is so much about rhythm. I try not to intellectualize it too much.”
Gautier got his first break as an assistant to veteran DP Bruno Nuytten on Alain Resnais’s La Vie Est un Roman (1983). He hooked up with fellow IDHEC film school alum Desplechin on the featurette La Vie des Morts (1991), and has since been working consistently with French cinema’s most prominent names. (Other credits include Desplechin’s My Sex Life, Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, and two 2001 movies awaiting U.S. distribution: Catherine Breillat’s Brève Traversée and Raul Ruiz’s Savage Souls.)
The most memorable sex scenes of the last few years were shot by Gautier: Theunderexposed, unsimulated brother-sister fuck in Pola X was much easier to capture, he says, than the voracious fumblings of Intimacy‘s disconsolate strangers. “It was in the script for Pola X that the image should be really dark—so dark it seems to be coming from deep inside the film stock. But in Intimacy, the sex scenes are the departure point. Patrice wanted the picture to not hide anything, but not be pornographic. It was a really difficult balance. It had to be the opposite of something like [Jean-Jacques Annaud’s] The Lover, none of that ridiculous backlighting. I looked at a lot of Nan Goldin and Francis Bacon.”
Adapting to directorial personality is, says Gautier, a crucial part of the job: “Leos, for example, is very patient, Patrice not so much.” Chéreau’s sets thrive on a harried urgency (“You try to capture a moment of truthfulness as if by accident, like in a Cassavetes film”), while Carax flirts with Bressonian obsessive-compulsiveness (“You do everything again and again, and after a while, the actors almost forget what they’re doing”). “It comes down to mutual trust. It’s impossible to talk about lighting. What can you say? It should be very blue?” Assayas, who also teamed with Gautier on Irma Vep (1996), agrees: “It’s so easy with Eric because he has a great knowledge of the chemical aspect of photography, but there’s also this war-correspondent instinct that takes over when he’s holding the camera. Some cameramen will say, you can’t do this, that won’t work. But Eric does not care. He knows that everything is possible.”