A Tandem in Roubaix

Interview with cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky about her work on "Roubaix, une lumière", a film by Arnaud Desplechin

La Lettre AFC n°301

[English] [français]

The story of fidelity between Arnaud Desplechin and Irina Lubtchansky is being written here with their fourth collaboration on Roubaix, une lumière, which is in Official Competition at Cannes this year. The cinematographer recently finished work on the image of L’Homme fidèle, by Louis Garrel, and Julie Bertuccelli’s La Dernière folie de Claire Darling. (BB)

Although Arnaud Desplechin is faithful to her, Cannes is faithful to him seeing as all of his films, starting with La Vie des morts in 1992, have been selected either in competition or in parallel sections.

For this 72nd-annual festival, in prestigious company in the official selection, Arnaud Desplechin, used to tightly controlled exercises in style, has changed register and has created a film noir inspired by a true crime story. (BB)

In Roubaix, on Christmas evening, Daoud, the local police chief, and Louis, a newly minted cadet, have to handle the murder of an old woman. The victim’s neighbours, two young women, Claude and Marie, are arrested. They are drug addicts, alcoholics, and lovers…
Featuring Roschdy Zem, Antoine Reinartz, Sarah Forestier, Léa Seydoux.

Arnaud Desplechin et Irina Lubtchansky sur le tournage de "Roubaix, une lumière"
Arnaud Desplechin et Irina Lubtchansky sur le tournage de "Roubaix, une lumière"
Photo Shanna Besson

What was the origin of this film, which is rather disconnected from the rest of Arnaud Desplechin’s filmography ?

Irina Lubtchansky : It was adapted from a documentary whose structure is kept in the film. The film follows a police chief through several investigations up to the plot twist that makes the story condense into a single investigation, namely of the two young girls. Arnaud Desplechin’s signature style comes through in his direction, even though this is a very different film from Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse or Les Fantômes d’Ismaël, for example. In particular, he used non-professional actors to play some of the police officers in the police station, as well as some second roles.

What were your references in preparation for Roubaix, une lumière ?

IL : Arnaud showed us a Hitchcock film, The Wrong Man (1957), and the documentary Roubaix, commissariat central (2008) which inspired the film. I knew that we weren’t going to remake the documentary, especially since I am very familiar with Arnaud’s directorial style…it’s very romanced and leaves no doubt about the fact that this film is purely fictional.
Concerning the lighting, it is cooler and more natural on both girls (Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier) and might be reminiscent of a documentary image, but for the rest I designed it to be more like film noir.

Indeed, the signature elements of film noir are present in this film : highly-contrasted lighting, with warmth immediately provided by the city’s sodium lighting, and the orangish tint that reappears at different points throughout the film. How did you light the police station ?

IL : During the interrogation of the two girls, we decided to place them facing the windows, and the light envelops them, while the police officers are more contrasted, as they are backlit. We used SL1 LEDs, which are pretty soft, on the faces, and SkyPanels for backlighting, and we had everything connected to a DNX control panel. I also enjoyed working with profile spotlights, even though they’re more time consuming to use.

(Photogramme)

At nights, we used Fresnels and the new Arri Fresnel LEDs powered by batteries and dimmable. You can place them anywhere, such as in a car, and still keep real shadows.

A new genre for Desplechin, and new tools for you ?

IL : Yes, but also a new format ! His prior films were in Scope and we wondered about shooting in 1.85:1. We did tests in 4K but the size of the sensor was not appropriate for the wide shots, and it would have forced us to use a 25mm, where in Scope we would have used a 50mm for the same shot, with less depth of field. We tried 6K and 8K with the RED Monstro, but came up against the constraints of a very wide sensor in terms of finding the focal lengths that will be right for the shot and will avoid vignetting. It quickly became clear that we would use 6K because it is less intrusive on the wide shots in terms of the camera distance you have to keep with these wide sensors. The only downside to these wide sensors is how hard it is to focus. But the RED Monstro has an extraordinary sensitivity, and with the naked eye, I thought we wouldn’t see anything, but the camera had no problem, which was really a true strength for the night time scenes and an aperture that felt right to me for the medium-wide shots with a bit more depth of field.
Concerning the lenses, I chose Primo 70mm by Panavision and an old-generation 24-275mm Primo zoom lens. They are true gems, designed for this wide sensor. They delighted me with their rendering and their weight, their fine resolution, pretty blurs, and soft contrasts. It provided an image that was sharp, yet not too harsh.

As often in Arnaud Desplechin’s films, this one also contains zooms with a very gentle approach of the subject and high-angle shots that make the characters very touching.

IL : This is a film about human misery, and we wanted to be as close as possible to the characters, as though we were very gradually approaching the depths of their souls. 1.85 format allows for that, with precise close-ups that are concentrated on the actors. Often, the zooms are coupled with a travelling.

Was the police station shot in studio ?

IL : No, not exactly… It was a decommissioned former administrative building, and all of the sets were created. It felt like navigating through a city because there were so many offices and hallways. Bars were installed for lighting and sound, and the crew also had to install carpeting because the place echoed enormously. For the cells and the prison, we shot in a real police station and a real prison.

There is a magnificent night shot on a terrace…

IL : In this image, there are two focuses of the lighting, the chimney with smoke, lit by a Fresnel 500W that was gelatinized in order to make it look like sodium, and the other was a backlighting on the actors, with an open-faced Fresnel 1.000W ! I have to say that the result with this hyper-sensitive sensor is remarkable, the increase in noise is very soft even when you “pull” on it, and the colour rendering is also very good.

The film is two hours long, and there are a huge number of sets. Did you have to prepare more than usual for this shoot beforehand ?

IL : Shooting lasted six weeks, with up to four sets per day. I can tell you, each moment was intense ! Thankfully, we shot the interrogations using two cameras, and Catherine Georges, the camera operator, also shot the second crew scenes. So, yes, preparation was more than necessary ! Arnaud always plans ahead for all of his films. He takes photos with the Artemis application and gets help from his assistants, who stand in the set for the camera angles and the shots. When we get to the actual shoot, we can film one shot after the next because the shooting script is extremely detailed.
On this film, every evening the director’s crew would put the photos in order for the next day and would send them to us. It was a lot of work for them.
And Arnaud is always very present on set, when we are setting up the lighting, the camera, he is there !

(Interview conducted by Brigitte Barbier and Margaux de Sainte Preuve, and translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe for the AFC)