Denis Lenoir, AFC, ASC : "Art and Matter"

By Fabien Gaffez

La Lettre AFC n°236

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The 33rd Amiens International Film Festival, in partnership with the AFC, has for the second year in a row hosted "Caméflex Amiens", an event dedicated to cinematographers, from 11-15 November 2013. Denis Lenoir, AFC, ASC, was honoured with a retrospective on nine of his films and a Master Class. Fabien Gaffez, Festival’s Artistic Director, speaks about Denis Lenoir’s work.

The first thing that strikes one about Denis Lenoir is his gaze. His eyes are alive, at once severe and hospitable, blue like a sky that could become stormy. His gestures are precise, and his hands are like raptors ready to pounce on their prey. His voice belies a decided man who brooks neither procrastination nor prevarication : decisions must be made on the spot, in the blink of an eye.
We met him one September afternoon at the Café de Flore, but he didn’t seem to belong there. He lives and works between Los Angeles and Paris, between Hollywood and European cinema. We were like flies in the St.-Germain-des-Prés soup. Before our meeting, we were at least able to gain composure amongst the tall shelves of a venerable bookstore.
The Flore was full of its usual fauna – we recognized writer Patrick Besson and, upstairs, Costa-Gavras was engaged in conversation at the table next to ours. A little world. But when Denis Lenoir arrived, we immediately felt the pleasant efficiency of his presence. He is like a free man upon whom an artist has been superimposed, but who doesn’t carry his ego around on his back.

It is often artificial to try and find links between a man’s taste and his work, or to judge the man before judging his work. This is why someone who likes Renoir or Wellman won’t necessarily recreate the work of Renoir or Wellman. That being said, the films that mark our lives mark them forever – like being branded with a red-hot iron (this is what Denis Lenoir proposes us, besides his Master Class : to share with us fifteen films that marked him as an artist via clips from them that he comments).
Although a cinematographer is not a copycat, his eyes are those of one who has already loved a photograph, a painting, a film, a detail of everyday life. The memory of the cinematographer’s eyes, the depository of images that begins to be filled from childhood, is an enigma. Enigmas, too, are the sensations of day and night that have chosen to take up residence inside his eyes : forms of light, figures of shadow, sedentary colours, and vital materials.
Life cannot be reduced to these things, to these deep currents of one’s conscience, but the gaze feeds off of them and projects its invisible beam onto the world. This is what one would like to read in the eyes of Denis Lenoir, but he keeps the majestic opacity of a man who hasn’t seen everything yet.

During his youth, Denis Lenoir saw hundreds of films at the Paris Cinémathèque. All of those images he saw, dreamed, remembered, and forgot, formed part of his art. In his work, one doesn’t see the absolute will to master light, as in Aronovich’s. His conviction, one not shared by all, is that the director bears primary responsibility for the lighting – be it good or bad. And the cameraman is just there to talentedly work with it.
This is not to minimise the cameraman’s creativity, but simply putting its narcissistic dependency back into perspective. This is a more American, Hollywood approach, whose goal is work well done rather than absolute art. Nonetheless, one perceives that Lenoir has a true fascination for, and a nearly sensual relationship with light. Once again, this is not far from Aronovich. One of the men who most influenced his career was Argentinian cineaste Hugo Santiago and his film Invasion, which was lit by… Ricardo Aronovich (the Festival screened one of his films during the homage to Aronovich).
When you converse with Lenoir, you can put your finger on the major influences on his cinematic taste, at least in the nature of the images that left the deepest impression on his retina. Because light is matter. That is what our conversations and our impressions seem to reveal. Many of the films that were important in defining his own style are in heavily contrasted black-and-white and in which contrasts, energy, and double exposure transform the image into a vibrant celebration of light.

Three films stand out to him as constant aesthetic influences : Invasion, The Innocents, by Jack Clayton, Faces by John Cassavetes. In the first, Aronovich created a particular climate : the magnificent black and white imparts upon the film a sensation of unease, separates it from the average B-movie and provides it with the breadth of a pure work of science-fiction. The atmosphere and greyness of that imaginary city, which looks a lot like Buenos Aires, are perfectly rendered by the image, which also puts it on another planet and is reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro.
If you revisit The Innocents, a pure masterpiece of fantasy cinema, you realise that the image is truly autonomous from the story. The double exposure effects create fear even of the protagonist (as though the film were haunted by other images). Freddie Francis, who long worked for The Hammer (he directed a few films, too), was responsible for lighting and implemented, dare I say, a sort of teratological lighting (he would later design the lighting for Elephant Man by David Lynch). As for Faces, beyond the vitality that the film itself gives off, one especially notices the graininess of the film that combines with the graininess of the actors’ voices and skin (the close up on the face, by its very lability, expresses the constant uncertainty of oneself).
But, if I am not mistaken, Lenoir never really worked in black and white (even though some of his films play with stripped down colour, like Monsieur Hire).
The Cassavetes influence, which could be described as one of feverish naturalism, was expressed through his collaboration with Olivier Assayas : some of these films seem to strive for the primal bestiality of the author of Husbands, or in films like The Separation, by Christian Vincent. But once again, what is important, beyond the black and white, is the mood of the image and it’s physiognomy. For him, light is matter, and his art is primarily tactile, blindly seeking out the film’s haptic power.
There is more painter than sculptor in him. But a painter who instinctively throws his colours onto the canvas without ever getting bogged down by the stiffness of a drawing. A bit like Jackson Pollock. Lenoir filmed painters, like in Carrington or Angel. But the image never gets frozen in the colour or the vignette, despite working on the landscape (Carrington) or the imaginary (the transparencies in Angel). We know that he has a predilection for Peter Watkins’ Munch. But the film that, like a tattoo, left perhaps the most indelible impression on him was Pierrot le fou. This film was Godard’s turning point. He often compared himself to a painter, and, according to Jacques Aumont in L’Œil interminable, he worked on the cinema’s pictorial qualities from the inside.
Similarly, in Lenoir’s work, light is diffused as a feeling rather than as an idea. Besides its famous use of colour, Pierrot le fou is also noteworthy for the physiognomy of its landscape, as Aumont points out. Lenoir praised the genius of Raoul Coutard, saying that the “collage” aspect of the film had fascinated him : it was so different from the already institutionalised narrative methods of the Nouvelle Vague. Pierrot le fou, with its ironic camerawork, iconoclastic citations, jaunty narration, and eloquent chromatics, came as a shock to the young man who did not yet know that he would make a profession out of his passion for the cinema.
Aumont correctly says : “To show or to allow to be seen : this is the eternal dilemma of the cinema. Godard dreamt of doing both at the same time. The expressive landscape – dusky, lethal – of Pierrot le fou, is the place where this dream is played out.” If one adds other “influences” (secret, rather than concrete, influences), like Jansco or Samuel Fuller, one recognises the same expressivity in the camera movements, the same primitive sensuality. Lenoir’s manner is matter.

This sensual relationship to the image on screen is, lastly, defined by his approach to the actors. Denis Lenoir’s eyes belie an inner fire when we ask him about the photogenic (the unexplained mystery of the film star) : it exists and is the most unequally distributed thing in the world. When he discusses the responsibility of lighting, he does not claim to have invented the idea, but believes that the director’s choices and temperament are responsible for the lighting. He believes the director directs the lighting the way he directs the actors : not as a puppeteer, but rather the person who provides the inspiration for a coherent whole by providing a scaffolding of significant details. This idea of a shared responsibility for the “direction” of the lighting is of utmost importance to him. Lighting is comparable to the actor because the actor is the other living matter that light couples with.
Denis Lenoir knows what he’s talking about because he has also worked with Hollywood stars (Pacino, De Niro, Redford) who demand an entirely different method on set. He is not sparing with the anecdotes (which are not so much anecdotes as the signs of a “gay science”) : he cherishes the necktie that Dirk Bogarde gave him (they met on Tavernier’s Daddy Nostalgia) and is still impressed by Jonathan Pryce’s technical precision. It is true that Denis Lenoir has met paths with many actors and has in a sense painted their moving portraits. When one reassembles these portraits in the gallery of one’s mind, it is hard not to recognize a common thread linking faces and backgrounds, paintings of flesh and blood that we admire out of the corner of our eyes and in the reflection of a mirror : the smile of Virginie Ledoyen in Cold Water, the tired faces of Jean Rocherfort (Tandem) or Michel Blanc (Monsieur Hire), the pathetically burlesque silhouette of Jonathan Pryce in Carrington, the anachronistic grace of Romola Garai in Angel, or the pulsing of the human body in Disorder. These are all various cinematographic moods that capture our own moods. Each film had its own particular brand of lighting, but each one also allowed us to experience something of the world’s own – and of our own lives.

When we leave the Café de Flore and its fauna, on the way home in the greyness of Paris and its motley crew of faces, we realise that many of the films lit by Denis Lenoir left an impression on our own lives. They rise to the surface like so many beacons of a past that has constructed us. We loved those films. And we loved them deeply.

(Fabien Gaffez is the artistic director of the Amiens International Film Festival.
Top : Denis Lenoir, at the eyepiece of a Caméflex during the shooting of
The Manual Geographer, by Michel Sumpf, in 1994)