Alexis Kavyrchine, the many lives of…

By Ariane Damain-Vergallo for Leitz Cine Weltzar

by Ernst Leitz Wetzlar AFC newsletter n°294

[ English ] [ français ]

Alexis Kavyrchine has always been grateful to his Russian ancestors for giving him a) those last and first names that seem plucked right out of a Dostoevsky or Tolstoy novel; and b) that tall stature, blond hair and blue eyes which, by chance, he also inherited.

With those typically Slavic name and physique, a romantic aura emanates from him throughout his high school and college years in an educational facility located in a West-of-Paris suburb that is, shall we say, hardly accustomed to such specimens? At the time, he uses that notoriety sparingly, as his entire education has drawn him to a certain humility. Even now, he sometimes feels his name charms people well before they meet him - and he does not even speak Russian.

His grandfather was one of the "swept-away-by-history" people that fled the 1917 Russian revolution and he settled in French Algeria with his wife of Polish origin. Their only son – Alexis Kavyrchine’s father - was born there.
Then the whole family returned to France at the dawn of the 1950s, long before the blood-soaked Algerian War forced so many others to do the same

Having finally left their Russian roots and chaotic migrations behind them, Alexis’s parents, both engineers, raise their four children in an atmosphere of harmony and happiness. A loving - and cultured - childhood allows him, at the age when one chooses one’s future, to focus towards “a job in the film business” which, he thinks, “will give him the possibility to live a thousand lives.”
And preferably cinematographer, “a dream profession” that, he surmises, makes one collaborate directly with filmmakers who take one into the confines of their imagination, immersing one into a unique mix of passion and demand that can spin one’s very existence into a dizzying tornado.

Alexis Kavyrchine - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo - Leica M, 100 mm Summicron-C
Alexis Kavyrchine
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo - Leica M, 100 mm Summicron-C

Alexis Kavyrchine then passes the competition of the Louis Lumière Film School, the prestige of which reassures his parents. After two attempts that each time bring him closer to success yet ultimately fail but encourage him to persevere, the thirdattempt will be crowned with success: Alexis Kavyrchine finally gets into the school which, at the time, is located in Marne-la-Vallée, East of Paris.

He leaves the family home and moves into a small room in Paris. The few years that follow are happily marked by continuous discovery, interrupted only when, in 1995, he is drafted into the Gendarmerie Nationale’s Audio-Visual Unit, just a year before France’s president Jacques Chirac reforms the military and eradicates the conscription system.

In those long-gone days - read: the twentieth century - internships are not yet an institutionalized practice and state services fully profit from that skilled (and unpaid) workforce.

On the other hand, internships also allow young film school graduates to try their hands at video - a matter hardly taught at the Louis-Lumière school - during the ten months they spend in the military service. They also learn patience, a cardinal virtue for whoever wants to work in films.
Following the standard procedure, Alexis Kavyrchine becomes assistant camera, but deemed by everyone (including himself) as "too messy and dissipated", he refocuses and decides to make the jump and go directly to ... cinematographer.

On-location reports for both a weather channel and a music channel as well as live recordings of classical music performances constitute his first “regular” paying jobs. At the same time, he shoots documentaries and short films (about forty), which help establish his reputation as a young talented cinematographer who adapts to all situations with endurance and tenacity.

"It’s a job where you have to just hold on."

He travels, discovers the world and the overlooked aspects of society through documentaries on subjects as diverse as the psychiatric hospital, mathematicians or prisons.

Although the tug-of-war between uncertainly and euphoria, inherent to the building of any career (let alone that of a cinematographer) generally forces one to delay such a move, at the age of twenty-nine, Alexis Kavyrchine founds a family. Too premature, one might think, but then he has always trusted fate.

In 2004 - almost ten years to the day after he graduated from the Louis-Lumière School - Alexis Kavyrchine, now thirty-two, finally has the opportunity to light a first feature film, Olivier Peyon’s Les Petites vacances (Stolen Holidays).

However, those years witness the emergence of a hybrid species of cinematographers who experience both the end of 35mm film stock and the earth-shattering arrival of digital.

And it goes very fast. In 2012, the entire movie theater park goes digital and cinematographers are literally forced to adapt Alexis Kavyrchine is, therefore, part of a generation of cinematographers caught between a rock and a hard place that just have to learn that new approach to filmmaking as they go along.

And learn he does as, over the years, he designs the light schemes for singular and demanding films made by such diverse directors as Thomas Salvador (Vincent n’a pas d’écailles - Vincent), Emmanuel Finkiel (Je ne suis pas un salaud - A Decent Man), Cédric Klapisch (Ce qui nous lie — ’Back to Burgundy), Lucie Borleteau (Chanson douce - to come out in 2019) and Michel Leclerc (La Lutte des classes - Class Warfare, id.)

On Cédric Klapisch’s Back to Burgundy, he works with Leitz’s Summilux-C lenses.

"I just love them. The definition, the softness, the compactness of it all."

In 2016, he embarks on Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Le Secret de la chambre noire (Daguerreotype), an ode to photography and light.

The Cinemascope technology used allows Alexis Kavyrchine to explore a whole section of cinema, the fantastic. For cinematographers at large, dark films such as “Daguerrotype” are, paradoxically, excellent opportunities to demonstrate their virtuosity.

Per Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s decision, the film is to be structured in still wide shots that Alexis Kavyrchine’s light carves in rigorous geometry.

In this thriller - gripping despite its being slow and virtually motionless -, the images succeed one another like a series of paintings, causing the viewer to wonder about both death and photography, an art that allows time to be fixed forever.

A year later, he collaborates with Emmanuel Finkiel’s brilliant La Douleur (Memoir of War”, 2017), based on Marguerite Duras’ eponymous novel. With an incredible sense of contrast and a true instinct for the allocation of dark and light masses within the frame, he achieves an imagery worthy of the greatest cinematographers.

Yet the whole process determined by Emmanuel Finkiel is quite a challenge for Alexis Kavyrchine and his first assistant camera, Laurent Pauty.

No standing spotlight is allowed and the camera must constantly be on the alert, capturing the emotions on the actors’ faces, wherever they are in the scenery.

The director wants to immerse himself in every scene as though any notion of time has been abolished and he finds himself in the early 1940s, when young writer and resistant Marguerite Duras (played by actress Melanie Thierry) is waiting - in an unfathomable pain - for news from/of her husband interned in the Dachau concentration camp.

However intense those full-length fiction (or semi-fiction) films may be, Alexis Kavyrchine, unabashedly eclectic, always returns to documentary films that initially shaped him - to wit, Les Lip, l’imagination au pouvoir and Tous au Larzac, both directed by Christian Rouaud.

One may wonder whether the commandment "Know thyself", carved by the Greeks on the façade of Delphi temple, really would apply to Alexis Kavyrchine, as his rejection of introspection seems to have turned out pretty well for him.

He, on the other hand, prefers to follow the no-less pithy ‘’commandment’’ he picked up in philosopher Clément Rosset’s book Loin de moi: "The less we know ourselves, the better we are?"
Hasn’t he lived (part of, so far) “the thousand lives” he aspired to as a young man alongside exceptional filmmakers?

His only regret is having, at times, to turn down some of the projects he is offered.

"I am curious about everything, I want to do everything, I want to say yes to everything."

(Translated from French by Henry Béhar)