Antoine Héberlé, Over There

By Ariane Damain-Vergallo for Leitz Cine Weltzar

par Ernst Leitz Wetzlar La Lettre AFC n°297

[English] [français]

Grenoble is a town in the French Alps surrounded by high mountains that prevent you from ever seeing the horizon. In the cold season, the sun may appear then suddenly disappear several times a day.

Having spent his childhood there, Antoine Héberlé could not but acquire that fine knowledge of the sun’s trajectory which would serve him later in life. As a teenager, he escaped from the “basin” as soon as he could to climb up the peaks and admire spectacular views.

Try and imagine what Grenoble was like in the 1970s. Local school kids were all seasoned athletes, skiing and mountain-climbing aces, rubbing shoulders (and elbows) with the children of immigrants that had arrived en masse from nearby Italy.
Barely 8 at the time, Antoine Héberlé is a brilliant schoolboy, but with enough swagger to say “piss off” to one of his teachers who blames him for speaking rudely to a little Italian friend.
As it turns out, said teacher is a former resistant from Word War 2 for whom “friendship between peoples” is far from an empty phrase. The disciplinary sanction is swift : Antoine is ordered to kneel on a ruler in the school yard and, in front of the entire school, apologize.
Instead of enraging him, that humiliation is understood and accepted.
He even ends up admiring that teacher, a committed humanist, and, to this day, professes an unfettered, “chemically pure” love for Italy.

In high school, he discovers cinema through films like the Taviani Brothers’ Padre Padrone in which – surprise ! -a child rebels against the tyranny of adults. Later, he fancies himself as a (future) mountain guide. Explorers like Haroun Tazieff or Paul Émile Victor become his living gods.
The idea of going to an office every morning, as his father does, horrifies him and he cannot imagine practicing any profession that does not give preeminence to the open air, complete freedom, the primal – and delightful – coexistence with the wind, the cold and the sun, and wide open spaces that allow one to see beyond the horizon.

Antoine Héberlé
Antoine Héberlé
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo - Leica M, Summicron-C 100 mm

As a teenager, he has the chance - but does not realize it then - to spend some time on the set of François Truffaut’s La Femme d’à côté (The Woman Next Door), starring Fanny Ardant and Gérard Depardieu, which is being shot in his village.
The atmosphere on the set delights him, Depardieu impresses him and he begins to glimpse a possible elsewhere, away from the job as an engineer his parents imagine for him.
Perhaps taking up photography would be a romantic way to get there ?
At 16, he hitchhikes to Venice to catch the ever-changing and mysterious night lights on the laguna. Trying to return to France but failing miserably, he ends up, in the early morning, falling asleep on a stairwell in Bardonnecchia, just by the French-Italian border.

After the baccalaureate, he goes to college to study maths and physics, which allows him, the following year, to pass fairly easily the competitive exam for the Louis-Lumière Film School. The “high mountain guide” vocation has not outlasted his adolescence.
In Paris, he moves in with friends from Grenoble and spends his weekends in Normandy, reveling in sublime vistas. “Finally !”
At the time, the Louis Lumière Film School is located on the rue Rollin, in Paris’s fifth arrondissement, and the Latin Quarter cinemas nearby let the students in free of charge.
That gives him an opportunity to enrich and expand his knowledge of and love for films – both relatively poor at the time, - which grabs the attention of his Direction Dept. teacher, Pierre Maillot, who mischievously (and affectionately) nicknames him “The Alps moron”.

For Antoine Héberlé still has that ingrained desire to film mountains up close, thereby mixing his two passions (mountain-climbing and cinema) - and carefully refrains from entertaining even the slightest whiff of a dream of becoming a feature film director.
And indeed, his first job as assistant camera will mainly consist of holding one end of a hundred-feet-long rope (a feat very few can boast about), at the other end of which hangs young cinematographer Thierry Arbogast, long before he became famous for lighting Luc Besson’s films.
Antoine becomes one of his assistant camera operators while also working on institutional films for television, and even on short films as a cinematographer.
"I’ve always been an all-rounder kind of guy."
That staunch optimism, that faith in cinema and the energy he deploys at that time also affect his personal life as he becomes a father at only 24.

He is finally hired as an assistant camera assistant on a feature film, Éric Rochant’s Un monde sans pitié (Love Without Pity), a generational film that will turn out to be hugely popular.
But his career as an assistant camera comes to a sudden end when he meets "a crazy gang", a bunch of alternative rock buffs with whom he will make his debut as cinematographer on La Mano Negra, VRP and Noir Désir clips

We are in the ‘90s, and his name is spreading fast among such young and talented directors as Laetitia Masson, Émilie Deleuze (both FEMIS graduates) and Laurence Ferreira Barbosa who offers him to light a feature that will hugely be talked about, Les gens normaux n’ont rien d’exceptionnel (Normal People Are Nothing Exceptional), starring Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Melvil Poupaud.
Since his father happens to be in Paris the day the film is released, both men, their hearts about to burst, attend its screening at the Pathé Hautefeuille theatre. Héberlé père, who knows nothing about film and filmmaking, is nevertheless struck by the self-evidence of his son’s choice. At 29, and almost despite himself, Antoine has become a feature film cinematographer.
Conscious of his youth, Antoine moves ahead with infinite caution. "I have always been on a quest, in a kind of uncertainty that, paradoxically, allows me to move forward and take risks."

Director Laetitia Masson also incites him to a greater looseness and freedom, however important (or comfortably-budgeted) a project might be. Through the process of location-scouting, he learns how to immerse himself in the light of the various places they explore and use that on the shoot to find "a modicum of fantasy and grace".
On Laetitia Masson’s film Love Me, a light table covered with a translucent portrait of Elvis Presley was used to cast colored lights on actress Sandrine Kiberlain’s face – Yes, on a set, what happens off-camera can be that unexpected.

In the ‘80s, cinematographers Bruno Nuytten and Nestor Almendros began to favor “an accurate light” (as opposed to an “ostentatious” one) and to stylize natural light. Twenty years later, digital cameras will force everyone to reinvent their way of lighting accordingly.
When Antoine does not have the means to “build a light”, he "frames it” so as to give strength to the image. "I’m not looking for a flashy light but an accurate light that puts the natural center-stage."

A new generation of directors including Alain Guiraudie, Stéphane Brizé and Thomas Litli, has come to appreciate Antoine Héberlé’s inspired work.
When he shoots in digital, he pays close attention to the texture of the image and, therefore, used Leitz Summilux-C lenses on Thomas Litli’s excellent French series, Hippocrate, starring Louise Bourgoin.
"It was important to have an image at once precise, but with that roundness, that beauty the Leitz lenses allow you to capture".

More than thirty films later, Antoine Héberlé has been interspersed with awards. In 2005, Hany Abu Assad’s Paradise Now won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film ; in 2013, for Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Grigris, Héberlé got the Vulcain Prize for Best Technical Artist at the Cannes Film Festival ; and finally, in 2015, he got the Lumière Award attributed by the C.S.T. (Commission Supérieure Technique)
His work often takes him beyond borders, as is the case with Alireza Khatami’s Les Versets de l’oubli (Oblivion Verses),which was shot in Chile and left a deep mark on him. A Franco-Chilean-Dutch-German coproduction shot in Spanish !

Never, when pre-adolescent Antoine climbed the mountainous Massif du Vercors, could he have imagined, or even dreamed, that cinema would take him so far, beyond the horizon.
Over there.

Translated from French by Henry Béhar for the AFC.