Cinematographer Eric Gautier, AFC, discusses his work on Xavier Giannnoli’s film “The Apparition”

Filming the invisible, by François Reumont on behalf of the AFC

[ English ] [ français ]

Eric Gautier, AFC, answers a question regarding the potential paradox of filming a movie about a hypothetical apparition by the Virgin Mary with a smile and a recollection about the beginning of his adventure with Xavier Giannoli : “It’s a bit of a challenge to film the mystery of faith. The love of God is like any sort of love : there is no tangible proof, just the gift of oneself. Sincerity (and lies, like in other of Giannoli’s films) is at the heart of the story. The loneliness of the two characters, Jacques (Vincent Landon) and Anna (Galatea Bellugi) is the spark that sets the story in motion.”

Two human trajectories that seem very disparate on paper (a war correspondent who returns home traumatized by the death of a photographer colleague and friend, and a young woman who has made a gift of herself to God) meet by chance during an investigation. “They’re both lone wolves,” according to Eric Gautier. “Jacques shuts himself into his home at the start of the movie by sticking cardboard to the windows. His trauma causes him to reject the real world. Anna is a beautiful young woman with a radiant face who distances herself from her peers and chose to shut herself inside her faith.”

Besides relying on the two characters, the film also relies on the location : “We set up shop at Gap to recreate the little provincial town where the story takes place. We mainly filmed inside an old convent where the chapel in which many of the main scenes in the film are set is located. The proximity of the mountains in the background and the possibility of climbing up there for the location of the apparition also fit well with the film.”
The screenplay had originally located the story in the south-west of France, but choosing the Alps also helped to get away from the Lourdes picture-postcard image and also from the austerity of the Pyrenees. Besides Jordan and the Farnese Palace, which houses the Embassy of France in Rome (the Vatican scenes were shot here), a few days of shooting were also planned in the Paris region in order to benefit from the region’s subsidies (the location of the interrogation chamber, e.g.).

The cinematographer also highlighted the capital importance of selecting and managing the extras : “Amélie Duval did an excellent job on this film.” By contacting a number of Christian volunteer associations, she was able to assemble a group of men and women of faith to play the members of the crowds, which was one of the keys to the verisimilitude on screen. “People from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds,” explains the cinematographer, “some of whom even came from abroad, and who surrounded Anna’s public appearances with a really incredible sincerity. In order to achieve that goal, Xavier Gianolli constantly made certain to respect all of their beliefs, without ever taking sides nor judging. All of the scenes of religious gatherings had to be believable, sincere, and nourished by faith. That’s what became really incredible to film.” Minor spoiler alert : the tone of the epilogue preserves a dose of mystery surrounding Jacques’ character.

As to the choice of the 2.40:1 format, Eric Gautier explains : “even though the film opens on documentary images from the war in Syria, and that reality was always at the heart of the director’s choices, we did nonetheless choose to film in real anamorphic Scope (Panavision G Series) in order to give the film more breadth. “Personally, I like the storybook quality,” he says. “I prefer Truffaut’s cinema to the Dardennes’. One of Xavier’s choices was his desire to film documents, since this film is about an investigation. I’ve never liked filming inserts, always preferring to link them to the actors’ movements. But here, I decided to play along, and I really got into filming all of those letters, articles, writings, film excerpts (some of them from actual apparitions recognized by the Catholic Church), objects, etc. There were really a multitude of documentary items that Jeanne Bizard did a marvellous and meticulous job of assembling and creating. We shot those close-ups almost as though we would have done landscapes, to the extent that we even spent an entire day at the end of shooting enjoying capturing everything we’d missed.”

The Apparition is also a film with a very fine colour palette, alternating between shades of whites, beiges, and browns (the flat scenes and the religious costumes). “Even though I love traditional celluloid film, I felt motivated to explore another tool on this film, namely digital cinematography.” In order to choose a camera, Eric Gautier met with Patrick Leplat and Olivier Affre, at Panavision Alga, in order to conduct a series of colorimetric tests using the palette supplied by the set designer, Riton Dupire Clément (Ma Loute, Camille Claudel 2003). “I chose the Sony F65 for its extremely subtle rendering with lots of nuance. It was almost like filming a film in colour… but almost without the colours !” Captured in Sony Raw, the images were colour graded by Isabelle Julien of the Ike No Koi digital laboratory.

Galatea Bellugi et Eric Gautier sur le tournage de "L'Apparition" - Photo Shanna Besson
Galatea Bellugi et Eric Gautier sur le tournage de "L’Apparition"
Photo Shanna Besson
Crucifix et gaffer rouge, pour le regard - Photo Eric Gautier
Crucifix et gaffer rouge, pour le regard
Photo Eric Gautier

The cinematographer admits that in terms of lighting, he prefers spontaneity : “I rarely use pure lighting on a set. This film was no exception. Mixing light sources and looking for things that are a bit fragile and unpredictable in order to impart instability to situations and characters… In a set like the apartment given to Jacques during his investigation, I liked to mix 4,000K, 3,200K, and even domestic lightbulbs that were even warmer still.”
On location in the chapel, another example : “The place was naturally dark and rather vast. Daylight didn’t really enter that place. I chose to stick with a dark and highly-contrasted ambience, thinking of Gordon Willis as a reference, by mixing colour temperatures and playing on the strong contrasts. Xavier and I changed this to something brighter and more metallic during colour grading in order to get something soberer and less…story-book… It was an image that was reminiscent of Dante Spinotti in Michael Mann’s Insider. That was one of our investigation film references.

Another scene that sticks with the viewer is the scene in the forest at night in the film’s final act. “It was a bit of a Calvary for Anna. A scene shot in day-for-night, on which I recalled a similar scene in Pola X I shot for Leos Carax. At that time, the entire scene was done with special effects because digital editing technology was so new (1998). On The Apparition, things were much easier. All we had to do was shoot in direct sunlight and adjust the level of the skies using masks for some shots. But what makes that scene strange is the parallel editing with other scenes that seem to take place in broad daylight (Vincent Lindon interrogating the young man in his locker room) but end up at dawn, when she faints and the helicopter comes to save her. We’re completely liberated from the notion of time in that part of the film.”

Eric Gautier adds : “Besides what I mentioned about the extras and the directing, this film really relies on its cast. Vincent Lindon, with whom the viewer can immediately identify, plays the very classic role of the detective. And Galatea Bellugi literally carries the film on her shoulders. In the scene of her interrogation by the canonical investigation committee, Xavier Giannoli focused a 4-minute-long master shot on her. That’s rare in film. And it’s invisible, since she’s so completely in her role.”

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)

The Apparition
Produced by Olivier Delbosc (Curiosa Films)
Directed and written by Xavier Giannoli
Cinematography by Eric Gautier, AFC
Set Design by Riton Dupire-Clément, ADC (2d assistant : Jeanne Bizard)
Sound by François Musy
Editing by Cyril Nakache

See screenshots from The Apparition in the Portfolio below