Alain Levent, the acrobat

by N. T. Binh

[ English ] [ français ]

It is with sadness that the AFC has learned the passing of director of photography Alain Levent, AFC.
Among the many stories in memory of our colleague and friend, here is one by N. T. Binh, a member of the editorial board of the magazine Positif, as written by Yann Tobin.

I knew Alain Levent through my sister Minh-Tam, who was assistant to Ariane Boeglin on Tavernier’s movies. Ariane is the editor, and with Alain formed a real "cinema couple” : not a couple for the spotlight or the front pages of magazines, no ! A couple of cinema’s children. A couple of cinema parents that all cinephile kids dream of having (they are lucky, Martin and Marie ! Mine led me to medicine ...).
The public does not know the name of Alain : he is one of those artists in the shadows whose job is to light.

This means that at first, I knew Alain without knowing him. In the 1970s, when I discovered the films of the Nouvelle Vague, Alain’s beginnings, they were already works for the cinematheque and film clubs. In the meantime, he had tried directing, but I had not seen The Bar at the Crossing, and he pursued a career as director of photography a bit chaotically. In fact the phrase "pursued a career" is poorly chosen. No career plan with him, just the loyalty and trust of some, the ingratitude and amnesia of others...
After being in the credits, as an assistant camera, then as an operator, then as director of photography of "movies talked about", those of early Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol and Varda, those of the great era of Godard and Rivette, he now worked on two kinds of films whose crew you never remember : successful popular movies like those of Edouard Molinaro, and the cult film of unknown auteurs like Jean-Daniel Pollet. This polarization will continue in the 1980s, when he is not heard of despite the fact that he never stops shooting : disdained by the cinema, Alain goes to work for television, sometimes directing fiction, and accompanies young filmmakers like Laurent Heynemann, Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Claude Guiguet.

Alain Levent is not one of those directors of photography who impose their "style". First, he fuses with the desire of the director but, at the same time, seeks to capture the peculiar vibrations of the actors’ faces. His camera does not prettify, it reveals, it humanizes, it deepens. The Nouvelle Vague has its advantages : the faces of actors and actresses give their best in a light that is often worked on, yet remains "invisible", as natural as the locations around them. A great lover and connaisseur of the stars of Hollywood great period, Alain filmed actresses in a memorable fashion, but it is not glamour that he captures in them, but rather a wounded and just truth, the one in films by Rivette for example : Anna Karina in The Nun or Bulle Ogier in Crazy Love.
Similarly, the masculine faces that interest him have "character", they show the angular asymmetry of offbeat seducers : Jacques Brel, of course, an accomplice and friend, but also the amazing Claude Melki, Pollet’s Acrobat. This strange contrast was already apparent between the smooth-skinned but scorched face of Corinne Marchand and that of Antoine Bourseiller, still young, but already marked by experience, two actors in Alain’s first feature film as (co-)cinematographer, Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962).

There is another characteristic of Alain that one guesses by browsing the titles of his filmography : commitment. Generous causes gave him wings. For him, making a film was a form of civil disobedience, and the subjects of films that were proposed to him questioned the society of the time : intolerance (The Nun), colonization (Far from Vietnam), torture (The Question), real estate speculation (The Spoiled Children) ... every time, these titles are among the most "political" of their authors.
To this commitment, Alain Levent was faithful to the end. Combined with an adventurous spirit, it had, in recent years, allowed him to sometimes shoot abroad and in difficult conditions, for singular and rebellious filmmakers like Nouri Bouzid, Mehdi Charef, or Randa Chahal Sabbag.

Alain felt that, often, the filmmakers he had accompanied tended to forget him, not remember him- it was perhaps less true of television directors, like Pierre Boutron. But this has enabled him to continue to work with new talent, to which he always generously offered his experience and friendship. I myself hired him, years ago, for an industrial film to which he devoted himself as if it were a feature film. I discovered another Alain from the one I had seen at relaxed cinephile dinners : a concentrated and attentive crew member, both anxious and self-confident, a little intimidating. And I had the pleasure of welcoming as second assistant operator his son Martin, then aged 14 : it was his first film in 35 mm, and it was my last !

Lately, we have seen less of Alain and Ariane. But we called each other regularly, and we tried to dine together twice a year. There was talk of cinema, of course, of his films, of my articles in Positif : I was delighted to come upon his name in credits, and he commented my criticism. I knew that he was ill, very ill, he had called me at the beginning of the year to tell me what was happening to him. He was happy about an interview with him that Positif had just published in a dossier devoted to the zoom. He shared my enthusiasm for There Will Be Blood by Paul Thomas Anderson.
When my sister and I invited him to a birthday, last April 19th, it was his first real day out in a long time. Despite his weight loss, we found his joy, his enthusiasm and sparkling glimmer in the eye, especially after the screening of a silent masterpiece of King Vidor, The Crowd (1928).
I then recalled a shoot he had told me about, perhaps the most impressive of his entire career. It was not a feature film. It was in 1967, Andrew S. Labarthe’s documentary on Josef von Sternberg, for the legendary collection Filmmakers of Our Time. Do you realize, lighting Sternberg, the master of Hollywood lighting, who had filmed Marlene Dietrich and done his own cinematography for films like The Devil Is A Woman, now he was in front of the camera, on a cheap 16mm shoot, with a young DP and three scoops... And yet, Alain told me, the great filmmaker had been courteous, even benevolent towards the efforts of this youngster full of admiration ; after his moment of glory, Sternberg had experienced periods darker times, less prestigious productions ; he wanted nothing more than to share his talent with future generations. It is this same attitude, consciously or not, which subsequently guided Alain in his relationships to the directors who were younger and less experienced than he.

A few days before his funeral, Ariane telephoned me to ask me to speak and evoke the memory of Alain. There were a lot of people. At first, no one spoke ; Ariane gave me a small trusting sign. So I was the first to climb the podium. No easy feat. My throat a little tight. And once in place, I started to talk, informally, as if Alain was still there. My impression was that this encouraged other friends, family, fans, to come and speak although they had not planned to.
His eldest daughter, whom I had never met, read the verses from a Wordsworth poem that are heard at the end of Splendor in the Grass by Elia Kazan, while the overwhelming face of Natalie Wood (one of Alain’s favorite actresses), lit by Boris Kaufman, illuminates the screen. Something very strong was shared that day, by people who came from different worlds and did not necessarily know each other beforehand. We had the feeling that Alain was listening to us, that his presence leaped and bounced among us, with the roundness of his smile, the gentle firmness of his voice, the anxious but benevolent acuity of his gaze.

(Translated from French by Benjamin B)