Festival de Cannes 2024

Claire Mathon, AFC, looks back at her choices in shooting Alain Guiraudie’s "Miséricorde”

By Céline Bozon, AFC, and Hélène de Roux

Contre-Champ AFC n°356

[ English ] [ français ]

“You’re not taking the road tonight ?”, and now that Jérémie’s stay in his childhood village, where he’s come to attend the funeral of his former boss, lasts longer than expected. As he wanders the autumn forest in search of porcini mushrooms and pays incongruous visits to his childhood friends, he weaves a web of desires and frustrations whose threads seem to escape him. For their third film together, after L’Inconnu du lac and Rester vertical, Alain Guiraudie and Claire Mathon plunge us back into a film noir whose exploration is infinite, and whose astonished faces will mark us for a long time to come.

Céline Bozon : Did you have any film references for this one ? Or sources of inspiration ?

Claire Mathon : It’s mainly the films we’ve made together that fuel our discussions. There was the investigation and mix of genres in L’Inconnu du lac, with the desire for a darker, more anguished film, as well as continuing to work in natural light, this time with the forest and the colors of autumn. Our other common references include the full moon in Rester vertical, and the desire to further explore shooting with the light available at night, using the high sensitivity of today’s cameras. A starting point for imagining the nights of Miséricorde.

CB : For the scene on the edge of the precipice, were you looking for the wrong hue ? Or was it a gift from heaven ?

CM : I admit that it was a gift from heaven... but we were definitely looking to capture the bad weather, the wind, the movement in the light, the rain... We were on our toes, ready to go shooting at the first drop of rain for certain shots. On this scene, we didn’t want any rain, but we welcomed the randomness and unpredictability of the light. I wasn’t afraid that the beginning and end of a sequence would be different, or even within a shot, that the light would change despite the film being rather cut-up.

Photogramme

I loved doing the scene of the first visit to Walter’s : it was very windy, the sun came and went... I liked to feel and let clouds happen, even hope for them, and launch the shot at the right moment, “Let’s go, it’s going to change”, even accepting that it would change between and within each shot. The precipice scene was too long to imagine waiting to launch the shots, but in the focus on Jérémie (Félix Kysyl), something magical happens, like a spotlight illuminating, revealing... It goes beyond the simple false hue, and the variations suddenly interact with the scene.

The bad weather was expected. Alain chose the Cévennes region, the settings and the season with this in mind. When choosing the forests for the film, for example, we took into account the altitude to take advantage of the fog, neither too high nor too low.

CB : Knowing you, the reference to Sous le soleil de Satan jumped out at me : the confessional, those light loss...

CM : I saw Sous le soleil de Satan again, without talking to Alain about it. I remembered it very vividly. I also saw Pola X again, the forest at night, as an American night or in the evening... And L’Armée des ombres, for which I’m particularly fond of the nights and their mystery.

CB : So the season was important.

CM : A lot. It’s the end of autumn, the most beautiful moment before there are no more leaves, the peak of color. But it’s such a short moment. In the film, we can almost see the arrival and the end of this flamboyant autumn. The work plan focused on autumn and took the weather into account.

Hélène de Roux : I’ve never been in a forest on an autumn night without light, so I don’t know what it’s like in real life.

CM : I did some tests in September, a month and a half before shooting, on a full moon day in the forest and in the village. It was nice to see that the full moon gave an effect akin to cinema artifice, like a spotlight with its shadows. But the forest is so dense that even with a full moon, we couldn’t register anything - it was pitch black. So I came up with the idea of directionless, soft shadows. The nights in the film are a mixture of day for night in gray weather, sequences shot at the last moment of twilight or at first light at dawn, and real lit night. We also used a full moon and additional light to shoot the very wide shot of Jeremiah on his way to the presbytery. The other way to make the nights seem as dark as possible - and this is a recurring motif in the film, both indoors and out - is to turn the lights on and off. Right from the start, I was looking for that sensation of seeing almost nothing when you’ve just turned off the light. It’s a figure I’ve tried to develop by playing with this effect linked to our perception.

CB : Yes, when the light is on, it’s very much on.

CM : In order to accentuate this effect : you feel you’re switching off, and you can still see in the dark. That’s why I defended the idea of shooting at dusk, for the balance between light on and darkness. But of course it’s not compatible with long scenes. So I mixed up the effects : when the lights go on and off, it’s twilight, and as soon as it’s just lights out, it’s often day for night or real night. Shooting in the evening and at night allowed us to see the backgrounds, to make the depth of the forest palpable, to feel the vibrant elements and the muted threat.

CB : To what extent did you develop this on/off effect during color grading ?

CM : I thought it was very nice to support this change in color grading. When it’s on, there’s color, warmth, contrast, brightness, and when you turn it off, you lose the color, it’s softer and darker without losing legibility. I could easily change the calibration within the shot when switching on or off. It was this research that gave me confidence on those very dark nights. They spend all their time switching off and on, and getting caught by someone switching on. Even in the forest, Jérémie digs with his lamp, then turns it off for fear of being spotted. There was a scene in the script where he was driving with his headlights off. We ended up keeping the lights on. I think you have to believe very strongly in the things you come up with, and in this case I found it hard to believe in the American night when I was driving down the road with the lights off...

The day for night scenes are worked with black or diffusing canvases to try to cover and darken certain parts of the image. I sometimes asked the art department to darken elements in the field, such as a wall. The paradox of these shadows is the difficulty of creating shadow zones. Trying to restore contrast in the image so that everything a little dark becomes very dark, or even totally black, and the only thing that stands out is the skin and the brighter zones. It has a lot to do with the frame, and the day for night is very constraining.

CB : Did you have time to light at night ?

CM : I tried. It requires working very fast with moving lights and constantly adapting levels. This constraint led us to shoot a shot at dawn. It was easier to set up the additional lighting at night and wait for the backgrounds to appear before shooting. This is one of my favorite shots, at the end of the film, with Jérémie and the abbé, in the forest. It has the right balance of artificial and natural light. It’s what I dreamed of doing, of achieving : soft contrast, with black areas, detail in the leaves on the ground, no marked direction, the skins standing out while leaving the backgrounds legible. To be with them, giving the forest a real presence.

CB : Seeking out the penumbra means digging deeper into the mystery, making it even more unfathomable (deeper). We’re always on the frontier between what’s hidden and what’s seen, and that’s what the film is constantly working on, this frontier. Of good/evil. Understandable/reprehensible, desire/aggression, said/you, living/dead. All this requires an immense amount of trust between you and Alain, and it’s very moving. What about indoors ? There’s a beautiful corridor in Catherine Frot’s film, very Lynch-like...

CM : Indoors, it’s an extension of this reflection : how to do it without direction, what sources to use... I did some tests on day for night indoors, because there’s nothing as soft as daylight in gray weather, but it was very difficult to cut. So we always lit with very soft, spread-out, controllable sources placed indoors. This also made it possible to shoot in daylight. With Ernesto Giolitti, the gaffer, we built a projector for these interior shadows. We used Astera indirect on a silver canvas, and magic cloth combined with neutral grey for diffusion in a box that allowed us to direct and cut the light.

The film is shot on location in these high-ceilinged village houses. The rooms are generally small and low-ceilinged. I had a small crew. I chose never to light from the outside, and to find ways of putting the light sources inside, while creating shadows and the sensation that the light is coming from outside.

Photo Xavier Lambours

To keep things light during the day, I’ve accepted the fact that light doesn’t come into the house, or that it doesn’t come into the house very much at all, which is true in winter. So I use ceiling lights both day and night. And in the end, on the contrary, I tried to limit the light coming through the windows, which also refocuses Martine’s scenes around the table.

Photogramme

CB : This ceiling light is still very soft and enveloping.

CM : I think they’re soft to look at, and that’s what I like too. All the practicals in the film are ceiling lights (Vincent’s bedroom, Walter’s kitchen, the rectory...), so it was a real choice, this light coming from above. You can feel the lamp when the characters stand up. I liked this direction on the faces, which is more marked than what I usually do, often favoring sources at eye level. I wanted to keep the light simple, “like a light bulb”, and therefore quite soft in the end. This allowed me to do something I like : put the face in shadow when the character lowers his or her head, and reveal the eyes, which enter the light when the characters look at each other.

Photo Claire Mathon

CB : Coming back to the shadows, are they posed as they appear in the end ?

CM : Yes, even if it’s difficult to make such dense images right from the shoot. Despite the high level of underexposure, you have to offer an image that’s easy to look at on set. I made several LUTs with Christophe Bousquet, the colorist, so that we could see something, even if it meant darkening the rushes later for editing. Christophe redid some LUTs during the shoot, notably for the end sequence. I wanted to make the dailies even darker, so that the nights would look a bit like the final nights. He even added a few masks. Alain really encouraged me to go darker.

CB : It was Pierre Lhomme who told you that on L’Armée des ombres, Melville had told him he could go for darkness because there would be music.

CM : Yes... Alain doesn’t need to see everything. He even pushed me during the final color grading, when the images were already very dark and I was wondering what would remain of them after the projections. You have to immerse yourself in the film ; if you’re not in the film, the images aren’t watchable...

CB : That’s where the film is very impressive : it’s like an abyss into which it plunges you without you even realizing it. In terms of method, when color-grading, you have to see the whole film again in continuity to understand the density ?

CM : You can’t even compare the sequences, saying “I like the penumbra there, and I’d like the same here”, it doesn’t work. Even the tints are difficult. I tried to do something that wasn’t very cold, with no tint... The forest at day for night is very difficult to grade, because in addition to density, there’s this relationship with tint, which you try to remove while preserving skin tones... you need to be able to separate the characters from the background. At one point I thought I might have to ask VFX for alphas to go through with what I was dreaming of doing. There’s a lot of masking involved in color grading to find that balance between contrast, density, softness and desaturation.

CB : What was the camera ?

CM : The RED Raptor, in 8K, with a 10% reserve for stabilization or cropping. In 2.39.

CB : And the optics ? We were talking about softness...

CM : I’d gone for Zeiss T2.1s, but when it came to testing, I decided to compare them with the Supreme, and I went with the Supreme. I was afraid they’d be too...

CB : ... contrast ?

CM : That’s what I remembered from previous tests, but this time I used them rather closed, at around T8/T11 in daylight, and there was something about their precision and definition that I really liked for the film, a certain roundness. There’s barely a hint of diffusion in some of the very close-ups with Catherine Frot, but nothing overall.

Photogramme

During the day I used ISO 1,600, and at night around ISO 3,200. From the very first tests on the colors of nature in autumn, the RED - Supreme pairing was obvious. We wondered whether an even more sensitive camera would be needed for nights, and I compared the Sony Venice 2/RED Raptor with the Zeiss Supreme in extreme underexposure conditions. Both were interesting, but for the images I was making, where there were only low lights and few highs, I didn’t need dynamics, and there was something in the RAW of the Raptor, with my choice of exposure and this desire for density that came through. I also preferred the softness of the tones in RED. Finally, I was also happy to find a simple set-up for the film : one camera and a series of lenses.

CB : And the choice of the 2.39 ratio ?

CM : There are a lot of shots in the film with an isolated character. It’s a film without primers, so when you frame two characters face to face, they’re either isolated or together in the frame.

Photogramme

Alain felt that he was going to use close-ups, even very close-ups of faces, and we questioned the use of Scope. But there’s also a relationship with the reclining body, the grave, the landscape, and numerous shots with several characters, such as around the table at Martine’s house. For me, this was the real reason for choosing this ratio, to put these faces and bodies side by side in the same frame. The size of the table was the subject of a lot of discussion : how far apart do you stand when there are two of you, three of you, six of you ?

CB : And this kitchen is very small.

CM : Yes... small, we’re up against the walls all the time. There’s a shot in Rester vertical that was for Alain a reference for the sensation of being close and in someone’s gaze. It was shot on 65mm film. Alain said : “I really have the impression of seeing as if I’m looking at someone, and I’d like the film to recapture this sensation”. Now, with each new configuration, lens and sensor, we’re relearning what a 50mm, a 65mm is... In any case, we’ve rediscovered this pairing of distance and focal length that tells the story of a face looked at by another.

"Rester vertical" - Photogramme - © Les Films du Worso
"Rester vertical"
Photogramme - © Les Films du Worso

HdR : This allows the viewer to be among them without looking down, to experience these events at the same pace as Jérémie, from the inside...

CB : That’s what’s so great about the film, this “air de rien”, this “I don’t know where I’m going, but the film takes me there and I end up wanting/needing to go there.”

CM : It’s actually very articulated... It’s written over time. There was a very important phase of cutting at the table in preparation, over several weeks, with Alain, Laurent Lunetta, the script supervisor/art director and in the presence of François Labarthe, the 1st assistant director. By the summer, we had validated most of the sets and had them in mind. We then asked ourselves what lies at the heart of Alain’s cinema : how we look, who looks, who is looked at, what is the rhythm of the film, how the sequences resonate with each other, and we went through the entire script to get a general idea. In the film, Jérémie often enters his POV. He listens and/or looks, then enters the frame. Sometimes we can see him coming, but often we arrive and discover with him, in a shot that turns out to be subjective. We’ve talked a lot about subjectivity and point of view.

CB : I realize there’s no dolly at all !

CM : Only the tracking shots filmed in the car.

CB : Whereas what you describe is typically a tracking shot, with the character entering the field from behind.

CM : It’s more like : he looks and then enters, in what turns out to be a shot that may not be what he was looking at, but which will always be looked at. The shots are watched, by him or by someone else. Everyone looks, and we’re always looked at by someone.

HdR : Does Alain Guiraudie arrive with the entire cut in mind, or is it a matter of discussion between the two of you right up to the moment of shooting ?

CM : When we get together in prep to talk about shotlist, Alain has made an initial journey, alone, with lots of questions and intuitions. We go through it again, and I try to react with my fresh eyes, to come up with a new document that still raises questions and reveals motifs, resonances and recurrences. The idea is to work together to understand the language of the film. In the end, we’re certain of some things that are the film, and others that aren’t. The “recurring shots” appear...

CB : Like the parking lot in L’Inconnu du lac ?

Photogramme

CM : In Miséricorde, it’s a recurring shot with even more variations... We never come back to the same shot, but we do come back to Martine’s house, instead of the grave...

HdR : Talking about the faces, what about the make-up ?

CM : As natural as possible, we leave some shine, some life, respecting everyone’s skin tone... I was very impressed by Alain’s immense pleasure in doing these close-ups in the film.

CB : The film is very tactile, you’re totally with the characters, hence the softness, which has always been your obsession, and surely the film’s. It’s here that you come together very strongly.

HdR : One wonders why he didn’t do close-ups like this before...

Photogramme

CM : That was the moment... It’s a way of getting closer. He says and shows more in this film. He asks moral questions. It’s a very assertive film. In its darkness and gloom too.