Boxes

directed by Jane Birkin, cinematography by François Catonné, AFC

[English] [français]

A story about boxes : boxes to put away our memories, boxes to transport them, boxes that sit in the middle of the living-room, waiting to be eventually unpacked. All these memory boxes were being staged by Jane Birkin. Loads of actors accompanied her on this journey, into the past, into the present. A single location – a family house in Brittany – and Jane as herself, in her own house.
François Catonné, AFC, was among those who embarked on this ever so personal and timeless journey with her.

François, let’s talk about the origins of this project…

I have known Jane for over fifteen years. Together we shot her first piece as a director, a film she did for Arte : Oh ! pardon, tu dormais ! She had handed me two video tapes : she had shot the story in but one shot, with two acting students, and told me : “This is what I want to do”. She was really surprised when I took her method very seriously. While shooting, I had been carried away by her directing skills, her visual sense, by the precision with which she placed the camera. And so I had long since been looking forward to making another film with her.
Boxes is a project fourteen years in the making. I am very happy it is being selected in Cannes and finally considered worthy of interest – I am saying this because no one wanted to finance this film ! No television network, no financial partner, no distributor. Jane had summoned quite a line up, though : Michel Piccoli, John Hurt, Géraldine Chaplin, Annie Girardot, Lou Doillon, Natacha Régnier, Maurice Bénichou, Tchéky Karyo, as well as Jane herself as a character who resembles her very much. All these actors trusted her. But the film had to be made in four weeks, with little personnel, little hardware and in 16 mm. This film had been waiting fourteen years for someone brave like Emmanuel Giraud (Les Films de la croisade) to finally produce it on credit.

Did this story, with characters showing up from the past and others being in the present, push you to create any particular effect ?

No, not at all. This is not fantasy. The departed characters encounter the living in a perfectly natural manner. There is no artifice to justify this. While moving into the house, Jane’s character encounters, meets, comes close to all the characters who matter in her life, who haunt her memory, who live or have lived with her.
Usually I do not like using the same light twice. Yet on this film, because we were short on time, I had to do it several times ! I took a bit more time on the scenes with fewer characters, especially when these were dramatic. I would often have a Kino Flo or a Black Jack (with pancake) in hand and follow the actors through the shot. A single direction for the light, a single spot, travellings going from a light room to a darker room, changes in diaph to adapt to lighting conditions because there is no other way… Many compromises to light not the way one should or would like to but the way one had the time to.

Jane’s house was entirely transformed and her decisions regarding the sets were essential to your work…

Jane was very careful regarding the choice of patina colours on the walls : strong greens, powerful reds, ocres with damp spots and light or dirty patches left by removed paintings, always with a bit of matter in them. The quality of the work on these colours helped me with the light by allowing me to focus on the faces. The moving boxes also serve as stage props, creating spatial obstacles. In this kind of production, the set is the only indulgence with which to assert one’s ambition. Collaborating with the set designer (here Raymond Sarti) is essential.

How does Jane handle being both actor and director at the same time ?

She memorised her text by heart two months earlier. She would learn either the English or the French version, whichever was the most natural depending on the sequence and the actors with whom she would be interacting. The film was shot in two languages. As for directing, Jane has her very own way : she would always use words that were poetical rather than technical, yet she would end up placing the camera and making the shots she had conceived most precisely ! She has great artistic instincts, and she is a very good drawer. She drew plans… vertically, like a portrait, without ever being able to adopt a cinematographic, widescreen format, but after all one might as well proceed that way ! She is very fond of radical compositions with one character very close to the camera while another one stands afar, with both characters acting at the same time.
She also loves very off-centered compositions, with characters very close to the border of the frame. Jane always had a very precise idea of what she wanted. All you had to do was find what she wanted to see. As far as technique is concerned, her ways are most often mysterious, but she would direct the cameraman very precisely by using the monitor. I was also surprised to discover her eye for grading while it was a step in the process she knew little of.

(Interview conducted by Brigitte Barbier for the AFC and translated from French by Mathilde Bouhon)

Jane Birkin
Jane Birkin