In which Caroline Champetier, AFC, discusses “Nyutten/Film”, a film she directed about Bruno Nuytten and his work

The documentary was screened on 5 July 2015 at the FID in Marseille

by Caroline Champetier AFC newsletter n°256

[ English ] [ français ]

Selected for the Marseilles FID Festival, the documentary directed by Caroline Champetier on Bruno Nuytten was screened on 5 July. Director and cinematographer Caroline Champetier, AFC, discusses this sensitive portrait of a legendary cinematographer who brutally decided to end his career after twelve continuous years of work on some of the greatest French films of the 1980s. (FR)

The film opens with the question of how to film an artist… Is this a sort of “mise en abyme”?

Caroline Champetier: The subject came to me naturally because Bruno had to address the same problem in Camille Claudel and I was, too, when I directed a telefilm on Berthe Morisot. In the end, I think that we agree on the fact that fictionally depicting an artist’s work contains a dose of usurpation… and Bruno Nuytten’s answer to the problem is clearly “what use is it?”.

Why did you become interested in him?

CC: I have always loved Bruno’s work. But the event that inspired the film was at the Cinematheque in 2011 with the screening in 35 mm of The Bronte Sisters during a retrospective on Marie-France Pisier. I remember how dazzled I was by the film, which, in my eyes, symbolizes the absolute faith that cinematographers in the 1980s had in the most advanced film stock technologies. I was cinematographically transported, as though the image literally held the film. Then, the project took almost two years to become a reality. Bruno Nuytten is a very secretive person who behaved at times like a wild animal… I needed to use a lot of tact and patience to convince him to participate in the project and to agree to a series of six interviews that took place over the space of a month and a half, for almost eight hours each.

Those discussions were recorded, because I couldn’t imagine filming him and listening to him at the same time. In fact, at the start, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to make a film, I just wanted to hear him speak and record his voice. Maybe a book or something else would also have been a possibility…

In what production conditions was the film shot?

CC: The film was planned out in Le Fresnoy, at the school where I was an artist-in-residence for a year. It is a magnificent machine for creating expressivity in fine arts, photography, and film…

Encouraged by Alain Fleischer, the founder and director of Le Fresnoy who also had worked with Bruno and who remained deeply moved by his experience working with him, I decided to make a movie on the basis of my discussion with Bruno.

How did you build the film’s visuals on the basis of voice recordings?

CC: The film took shape over time. My first desire was to let Bruno’s voice be heard without actually ever hearing his words. I decided to film him at home while he was laying floorboards with his son Barnabé and his daughter-in-law in order to go “beneath” his words, in a way. Rather miraculously, the issue of the relationship between art and artisanry in the cinema synthesized itself at that very moment. The wood floor became very symbolic as the film went through editing, it was the ground, the base…

The viewer has to wait a while after the beginning of the film before he or she actually sees Bruno Nuytten’s face… In the beginning, you only filmed his hands, his body…

CC: The film is about gestures. By definition, a gesture is performed by the limbs and not by the head. That is why I filmed his body before filming his face. Bruno brings up the importance of the gesture in our discussions. He believes that without the gesture, he would not exist… he wants to create things, to occupy his hands… And for many cameramen like him, I know that there is something of the body that is necessarily linked to the creation of cinematographic images.

One of Bruno Nuytten's gestures while laying floorboards in his home - Screenshot from <i>Nuytten/Film</i>
One of Bruno Nuytten’s gestures while laying floorboards in his home
Screenshot from Nuytten/Film

Anything to say about the choice of clips?

CC: Quickly, I came back to films that were important elements in Bruno Nuytten’s career. I have already mentioned The Bronte Sisters. But I would also mention Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta desert, by Marguerite Duras, which is an image track that superimposed on the soundtrack of another of her films, India Song.

The story of the way that that project was created was told by Bruno, in fact, with the central element being the ruins of the huge palace belonging to the Rothschilds at Saint-Cloud which was the set for India Song. The place was occupied by the Germans during the war and you could still see traces from that time in the basement.

Regarding this topic, I owe a lot to the film editor Isabelle Prim, a young artist recently graduated from Le Fresnoy who took things into hand and brought me a great deal of liberty in the choice of illustrations. Together, we tried to select scenes from the films that wouldn’t be too invasive. Few dialogues… Sometimes ends of shots that were a bit mysterious… Images that would be more like breathing. There are also extracts from Barrocco, by André Téchiné, and the astonishing Zoo zero, by Alain Fleischer.

Listening to Bruno Nuytten discuss his work, one realizes the extent to which his artisanal methods have changed since he has stopped making films… It’s a bit like passing from silent films to talkies!

CC: I think that Bruno was at the right place at the right time, a time when a huge revolution was happening in the way that films were made. And he felt it. He couldn’t continue to spend as much time as he was used to on set, crossfading while filming, correcting a part of the image on set by drawing on a piece of glass placed between the lens and the subject, or flashing during shooting as he did very audaciously in Barocco, are some of the reasons that forced him to withdraw from cinema.

Loosing his gestural freedom, entering into the universe of digital, in which “everything will be done in colour timing”, was impossible for him. Recently, some rights holders approached him asking to supervise the digital transfer of some of his films from the negatives. That was a bit of a nightmare for him. 35 mm film was a constraint that kept him within certain limits, while allowing him to experiment with a bunch of more or less crazy techniques. With the near-infinity of choices made possible by the scan and the Raw format, he admitted to me that he felt sometimes a bit lost. But that was just the beginning of another conversation that we had recently.

A still from one of the film extracts
A still from one of the film extracts

Besides the opening of the film and the images from Camille Claudel, you only very briefly discuss his career as a director, which put an end to his career as a camera operator…

CC: His first film as a director, Camille Claudel, came about without his looking for the opportunity. He explained that Isabelle Adjani offered him the project as a gift at the end of their relationship. Even though I think the film is a success – and it was a success with the public, too – it was an enormous project that was quite unlike a traditional author film, something that he cobbled together himself. His second movie, Albert souffre, was his real first film, in a way, with a return to a certain archaism, a rough aspect to the work… It is true that he does not discuss his career as a director in the documentary, but he also doesn’t mention the other directors with whom he worked. Duras is perhaps the exception, because he says that she was an artistic mentor to him. There is a real mystery regarding the place that the director has for him.

One of the memories of Duras that he mentions is how important it was for her to spend time on set before shooting. He even says how important it is to spend a night on location, etc. Do you agree with him?

CC: Personally, that’s what I did on my first film with Chantal Akerman. But it was because I really had to! As Bruno mentions, paradoxically the technicians (set dresser, prop master, electricians, grips, etc.) are the ones who often meld most with the set, more than the director or the actors. They arrive on set early, take their time, fill themselves with the place, and transform it… Their ingestion of the set is something that one has less and less opportunity to do today, which is truly a shame.

Bruno Nuytten’s approach is full of empathy…

CC: Empathy is the right word to describe Bruno. He even uses the word devotion. Perhaps it was all the energy he spent for years on all those different projects that ended up emptying him. The perpetual activity he consecrated to not losing his gestures for twelve years never left him time to breathe…

Another aspect that you don’t discuss in the film is his short American career… Many other great cinematographers of his generation went to work in America: Escoffier, Rousselot...

CC: We did discuss that together, but the film is only an hour and twenty minutes long, whereas our recorded interviews are over eight hours long. There is a funny story about filming Brubaker, by Stuart Rosenberg, in which Robert Redford, who is playing the main character, comes to see him and asks him what he’s planned to do after shooting this movie. Bruno answers that he is going to go home, without understanding that Redford is offering him the job of director of photography on Ordinary People, his first film as a director, which won a number of Oscars.

He returned to France without asking himself too many questions. A few years later, Redford offered Philippe Rousselot the job of director of photography on A River Runs Through It, which won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1993, which kickstarted his career in the USA. That’s Bruno for you! He’s a bit like Faulkner in Hollywood…

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

See other stills and images from the film extracts in the article (fr) dedicated to the screening at the 26th Marseille FID.