Bruno Nuytten : “A return to the very first shocks to the retina”

By Anne Diatkine

La Lettre AFC n°285

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Fascinated by experiments with lighting, Bruno Nuytten, the cinematographer who made his débuts in cinema on Marguerite Duras’ films, and who later worked with the likes of Godard and Claude Berri, decided to stop working on films in 2001. After a long absence, he’s back with photographs and an exposition in Paris.

He’s been photographing disappearance and uncertainty for the last few months, and these photographs of stolen moments, taken in all sorts of places, bear within them the evanescence of the moment and spark doubt. Does that little girl in white, whose clothes are straight out of a ceremony of the early 20th century, and whose face is outside of the frame, really exist ? She is divined rather than seen, as is that couple dressed in its Sunday best, but whose faces seem to have been eaten by a substance internal to the image itself. These portraits all have in common the fact that they are like fugitive samples taken from the real, and which are transformed by the power of the gaze. No context, no place, no date. They are us, they are everyone.

Anne-Dominque Toussaint is showing Bruno Nuytten’s “Found Images” through 24 March, and she has chosen a selection of abstract photos whose painterly quality is enhanced by the printer, but they also cause—in a less obvious way—symbiosis between the viewers and those being viewed : the feeling that through them, Bruno Nuytten is updating us on his life.

Disappearance : Bruno Nuytten is a specialist in disappearance, but disappearance is neither a profession nor even an art. It’s a way of being. In the 1970s and up to 1985, he was a star cinematographer, winning César awards, shooting a number of films each year, and earning a very comfortable income. It could have, and should have, continued. When one is recognized, how is one to forgo the immediate gratification of glory ? After 1985, Nuytten directed a few films himself, including Camille Claudel, a gift to Isabelle Adjani, so that they could take leave of one another “with a bit of class”, as he puts it today. But it was also to silence the malicious gossip that the actress was dying. It’s hard to be less of a show-off than he is, since he never, ever brags about anything whatever nor mentions any of his successes. Perhaps it’s that he’s found the way to let go of everything. Of not confusing critical thinking and masochism. Bruno Nuytten is simply someone who has nothing to sell, not even his own legend.

You’ve reappeared with photos. What reawakened your desire to create images ?

Bruno Nuytten : A good fairy, Caroline Champetier, whom I hardly knew but who insisted I come work with student artists at Fresnoy [art school in Tourcoing, in the north of France, (ed.)]. I told her to get lost, that I wasn’t in any way an artist. She said that the school would allow me to carry out a “personal project” which scared me even more because not only did I not have a project, but also, I particularly did not want to have one. But I ended up going anyway and I got started very simply, like everyone else, just taking photos on my mobile phone. I didn’t use any applications, except the one that deactivates all of the device’s automatic adjustments. The idea was to keep a journal of the gaze. A return to the very first shocks to the retina, what children experience when they see for the first time. An attempt to return to that gaze. I work in very low resolution on purpose. At the outset, my photographs weren’t intended to be printed and shown.

Can we breach the subject of what made you give up cinema ?

BN : I’ve never felt at home anywhere, from the start. When I gave up cinema, it felt really strange, even insane, but it was part of my difficulty in finding a place and feeling right there. At the beginning of my career, I got to experience what I did not know before : the image of a film. Rapidly, however, I started to get called on for my abilities. But I haven’t ever had any. From one film to the next, I forgot everything that I’d sought out and jerry-rigged on the previous one. In the 1980s, people started calling me for the wrong reasons. I had a family, a team that also had families of their own, bills to pay, and children, so I accepted. But all of those projects brought me even further away from the early pleasure I had experienced whilst filming. I found myself on films where I wasn’t at all comfortable. What interested me in the cinema was experiencing something I wasn’t familiar with and that I tried to do in my own way. When I decided to say no, I had a feeling of incredible freedom. There was no longer any intermediary between the real and me.

Your first steps were with Marguerite Duras...

BN : I learned everything I knew from Marguerite. How to shoot, to light, to frame, to live. We shot five films together and our great adventure was India Song. I spent my entire career as a cinematographer looking for the same pleasure I’d experienced on that film, but in vain. Marguerite would tell me what she wanted in her words, and I would try to give it to her with the technical means I had at my disposal. There were no preconceived ideas about what it was possible to do or not to do. Her simplicity was exciting. Behind the camera, I was beside her, and I was taken with her words, I would listen to her comment on what she was seeing, and I would see it through her eyes.
On India Song, Marguerite’s proposition was magnificent : “Transport me elsewhere.” We were inside one of the Rothschild’s long-abandoned houses in Boulogne, and Marguerite quickly decided that the entire house belonged to her. Of course, it wasn’t we who were taking her on a voyage, it was she who was transporting us elsewhere. In terms of the image, being in India meant disfiguring the real in order to transfigure it, but it wasn’t that technical gesture that impressed me. Instead, it was Marguerite’s happiness in making that trip. Earlier, there had been Nathalie Granger, which was Depardieu’s breakthrough film, the first one in which he’d had a real role. Duras was entirely aware of Depardieu’s power, she’d tried to minimize his effects by hiding him from us. When we saw him for the first time, we were shooting and he was moving forward in front of the camera. The beautiful thing is that he was afraid, too, he was intimidated by Jeanne Moreau and Marguerite. I’ve never seen someone appear that way in a shoot. With him facing the camera, there could be no doubt that one was in the presence of a monument.

Sur le tournage de "Nathalie Granger", de Marguerite Duras - De g. à d. : Bruno Nuytten, Ghislain Cloquet, à l'œilleton de la caméra, Marguerite Duras et Jeanne Moreau
Sur le tournage de "Nathalie Granger", de Marguerite Duras
De g. à d. : Bruno Nuytten, Ghislain Cloquet, à l’œilleton de la caméra, Marguerite Duras et Jeanne Moreau

Are you only drawn to first times ?

BN : Yes. I enjoyed filming first films - Gerard Zing’s At Night All Cats Are Crazy, for example - and especially when they’re first times for me, too. The other film I loved making was Alain Fleischer’s Zoo zero, whose negative is in such bad condition as to make it nearly unwatchable. It’s an apocalypse in which all of the animals in the Vincennes Zoo are freed into the streets of Paris... except that we didn’t have any animals, nor did we have the budget for special effects. We had to do everything while shooting. I enjoyed filming at night, reinventing the night. On André Téchiné’s Barocco, I’d wanted to appropriate a technique from Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond by inventing a method for flashing the image during shooting, which put the film itself at risk because the light was unmanageable. Even the camera, which was expanded by the use of a perpendicular tube and a mirror that I was filming, was dangerous because it was unbalanced. When I met Zsigmond and I told him I’d applied his method, he told me : “You’re mad ! I flash, but in post-synchronization.” So Long Stooge was my encounter with Claude Berri, the beginning of the end, my entry into a much more comfortable world that I ended up fleeing, but it was also a night-time film. There was an interesting proposition in this film, nonetheless : creating winter in the middle of the summer and shooting inside Paris at night-time, without pushing the film’s limits, but by massively lighting.

Do the director’s fame and the film’s commercial success count for something in the pleasure you have filming ?

BN : No. I was bored out of my mind on one of Resnais’ films, and the disastrous shooting of Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective was part of my decision to stop working as a cinematographer. Godard had chosen poorly, there was no one who doubts more than I do. I had three lamps, and each time I’d turn one on, he’d turn it off. My only influence on this film was as something to be opposed. I’d had the misfortune of showing him I was glad to work with him and to tell him that I’d rented all the equipment we’d need to take moving shots. He replied, “Unnecessary, for I only take still shots.” And I think that it was right then that he set himself that constraint.

How can one lose the desire to film actors and actresses ?

BN : What used to motivate me, besides designing lighting, was being inside the secret of the camera, that unique place where you’re hidden by the machine, and where your eyes aren’t looking at the actors raw. When you’re behind the camera, you get to witness everything that comes before the performance, and everything that comes afterwards. How an actor is about to jump into the shot, and how he’s going to leave it. I used to like the wordless connivance that occurs in communion with an actor after a shot. Actors see whether or not you enjoyed filming them, and you know whether or not they were satisfied with their performance. You sometimes happen across such distraught expressions in actors’ eyes. Often, the team has already begun preparing the next shot, but the actor knows that the prior one is going to have to be shot over again. What’s always appealed to me in the isolation of the cameraman is that, there, I’m totally in possession of what I’m filming, and so I can also decide what remains off camera. I’d found a position that worked because it was secret.

Does that place get lost when one becomes a director ?

BN : As far as I’m concerned, the bit of directing I did was a calamity. But the real reason I stopped cinema wasn’t the dissatisfaction my films brought me. The images from September 11th were the real end. I felt it was impossible to create images that would go beyond that terrifying and staged series of images, fed by our fictions. It wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. The first time I found myself nearly unable to press down the button on a camera was in 2002 on a made-for-television movie I was filming for Arte, about a young African girl in the Great North. I was in Vladivostok, watching seven polar bears skating on the ice. I realized I just wanted to watch them.

Do you regret you never shot in digital ?

BN : I’m not nostalgic for silver-process film, but I find digital cinematography boring in terms of the image, because of its neatness, which, like everything neat, needs to be disrupted. The only nostalgia I might have is the nostalgia for suspense. In the days of film, you only saw the result two days after shooting. You were afraid to make a mistake, and everyone was always very nervous before they saw the dailies. But we were so happy and always surprised when the filmed thing was really there. I always thought, when I was filming, that there wouldn’t be any image recorded. I remember total panic, calling the lab to check whether or not anything was on the film. Today, the colour graders have become the true stars, and bit by bit, the importance of cinematographers is declining. Soon, films will be made only by Steadicam operators and colour graders !

What do you think about digital cameras ?

BN : Today, night has disappeared from films, which are always over-lit when filming without removing light. Before, we used to work with moles. Now, cameras are like cats. If only I’d been told that I could have a cat for eyes...

Anne Diatkine
Libération, lundi 19 mars 2018

Bruno Nuytten Images retrouvées Galerie Cinéma Anne-Dominique Toussaint, 26, rue Saint-Claude, 75003. Through 24 March.

Translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe