Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg, AFC, discusses his work on Jean-Bernard Marlin’s “Scheherazade”

par Jonathan Ricquebourg

[English] [français]

Jean-Bernard Marlin garnered critical attention with his two short films, La Peau dure and La Fugue. He offered young cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg, AFC, the opportunity to film his first feature-length project, a rough-hewn film with non-professional actors. A graduate of the Ecole Louis-Lumière’s Cinema department (class of 2013), Jonathan began his career with Jean-Charles Hue on Eat Your Bones, a film selected in the Directors’ Fortnight and winner of the 2014 Prix Jean Vigo. Two years ago, he was at Cannes with Albert Serra, for The Death of Louis XIV, awarded the Prix Lumières in 2017. Once again, he is at Cannes this year for an adventure of cinema and light : Scheherazade, selected in the 57th International Critics’ Week. (BB)

Seventeen-year-old Zachary is being released from prison. Rejected by his mother, he spends his days loitering about Marseilles’ working-class neighbourhoods. That’s where he meets Scheherazade.
Starring Dylan Robert, Kenza Fortas, Idir Azougli.

One might think, or believe, that Scheherazade is just another movie about underprivileged young people set against a backdrop of social realism. But no ! This has nothing to do with those stereotypes…

Jonathan Ricquebourg : When I read the screenplay, I immediately understood that the story was a classic tragedy centred around a couple. The characters’ trajectory provides a strong direction to the image, which must accompany the love story and Zachary’s coming-of-age story. In order to love someone, he first has to allow himself to be loved. And turn his back on everything he has known up to then. This is a work on light and darkness. So, I almost always knew what I wanted to put at the centre of the scene, even though Jean-Bernard wanted to begin with a definitive screenplay that would be exploded during shooting !

Did you have to maintain balance between two references and propose a unique identity ?

JR : The references were Coppola for the tragedy, the bold and often dense colour and photography ; and Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) for the brutal, violent side, and the long focal lengths in the streets and photographic framing. The identity of the film was to create variations on colour and framing, like a piece of music accompanying the storm of youth, alternatively nervous or apathetic. There is naivety and hardness. They are both extremely soft and extremely violent, and they switch from one to the other in the blink of an eye.
So I wanted a soft, delicate image with very hard contrasts. I also wanted to distance the film from the “realistic photography” style too often seen in films. I didn’t want to create a visual terrain belonging to films about social problems, which are often associated with a flat and greyish image. Add red, blue, gold, and your scene takes on a totally different dimension. I wanted the colours to translate the characters’ interiority.

Shooting in the order of the screenplay helped to build its rhythm and to develop the characters…

JR : Jean-Bernard’s idea was that almost all of the actors (lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc.) would play their own role. The lead actor had just been released from prison and shooting was pretty tough because all of the actors were unreliable. We had to shoot in order, because for non-professionals, it is impossible to shoot out of order. That way of organizing shooting, which I’d already done on Eat Your Bones and The Death of Louis XIV, is very interesting : for both the actors and the crew, it means experiencing the feeling of adventure in its fullest sense. Scheherazade’s character is very childish at the start of the film, but she gradually becomes a young woman and emerges from adolescence. Lighting was interesting, too, because the film begins in summer and there’s a lot of light. The image is reminiscent of childhood, and then we head into winter, towards a dimmer image, perhaps more “adult”, and definitely less carefree.

The lighting is never the same. Starting with Scheherazade’s miniscule bedroom…

JR : Jean-Bernard wanted to be able to shoot at 360° all the time. In the bedroom, he didn’t want any spots because he felt it would be too “fiction”. In the bedroom, I set up a grid with lights indoors, a SkyPanel, and a lightbox ; and a 200W reflected inside the room… I changed the lights each time I went back to the hotel.
Generally speaking, I like it when lighting is “imperfect”. I remember that Stanley Green, the photographer, referred to American Indians’ habit of always leaving an imperfection in their woven rugs so as to avoid imitating the perfection of the divine… I really like that idea, it’s a sort of poetic mantra.

Your outdoor night scenes are never lit in the same way…

JR : For the first fight scene in the location where the girls prostitute themselves, I lit almost realistically, with flares and green. At another point, the light shining on him is very raw, which jibes with the psychology of the scene, where he’s looking for Scheherazade after she has disappeared. I only kept the “in” lighting in the tubes which become a point of reference to make it clear this is the same space… 
That’s also something I like and that comes to me from documentary filming : the real world moves and lives. Our gaze changes and we never see the same scene the same way twice. So why should we always seek to create a “match” between two scenes ?

High speed, soft lenses, and filters to diffuse light…

JR : I chose spherical Primo Classic lenses, because they have a roundness that I adore, and they are peerless for their ability to render skin. The bright lights were diffused by White Promists and the horizontal flares were due to a Streak series. Because the subject matter is violent, the image had to be soft. That was a hard balance to strike, between violence and softness. Choosing to film “soft” allowed me to work with more contrast in postproduction, without becoming too “hard” in the textures.

Following Zachary’s changes is a wager and a necessity.

JR : He’s a young man who falls in love and is going to have to admit it. That’s the main idea of the whole film. He can’t admit that he’s in love with a prostitute. He doesn’t know what love is. He believes that he himself is loved by people who destroy him. In the end, the question is how he is going to save himself.
I interpreted the film as a back-and-forth between shadow and light. Zachary believes that being hidden protects him, even though it’s a curse. It’s not just about saying that light represents good and darkness, evil, because at night, the light from the headlights is dangerous, it bleeds onto their faces and devours the image. Shadow allows for intimacy, and light allows the characters to feel helped. As the film went forward, I began to light Zachary more and more frontally…up to the courtroom scene. The entire film was shot at 2.8 aperture, but for that scene, we were at 11. The difference creates a strong feeling of shock, an impression of immediacy. The field remains deep up to the scene of Scheherazade’s return, once again filmed in 2.8.

The image must serve the purpose of revealing, but also protecting…

JR : In the first love scene between Zachary and Scheherazade, I couldn’t go back to a warm and intimate lighting, because suddenly the light became his ally and Zachary understood that love does exist. I wanted the viewer to be moved by this childlike naivete, linked to beauty and the importance of being loved.
In the same vein, Jean-Bernard and I didn’t want to be forgiving of violence. When Scheherazade picks up two guys in front of Zachary, it’s terribly cruel of her. The young woman was worried and asked me whether she’d be seen. I told her that the light would protect her. It was moving to work hard for the actors and to be at their sides in a relationship of mutual trust. The shadow prevents the viewers from seeing, but they understand the violence and feel it. They don’t have to see it.

(Interview conducted by Brigitte Barbier on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)