Jeanne Lapoirie, a yen for fate

By Ariane Damain Vergallo for Leitz

par Ernst Leitz Wetzlar La Lettre AFC n°300

[English] [français]

In 1991, while shooting J’embrasse pas (I Don’t Kiss), director André Téchiné falls in love with Super-8 images taken in some paratroopers’ barracks by the first assistant camera. Techiné has been entrusted with that footage by cinematographer Thierry Arbogast who is unable to finish the film.

The Super-8 internship that Jeanne Lapoirie did ten years before turns out to be a fruitful choice. Three years (and one film) after J’embrasse pas, André Téchiné offers her to be the cinematographer on Les Roseaux Sauvages (Wild Reeds) - the first in a long series that will crown Jeanne Lapoirie as one of the most talented female cinematographer of her generation.

As a child, Jeanne Lapoirie often crosses the Paris “périphérique” (Ring Road) to go to her father’s house in the Latin Quarter. At the time, she lives with her mother, her stepfather and two half-brothers, first in the north-of-Paris suburb of Saint Denis where she was born, then in nearby Stains and Pierrefitte. Quiet suburbs, far from the image one may have of them today... but also far from the mythical – nay, magical – City of Lights with its cultural life, its museums and especially its movie theaters which she is regularly taken to by her father who teaches sculpture at the Ecole Boulle, the prestigious college of fine arts and crafts and applied arts.

At the legendary Le Champo theater, she has seen old Marx Brothers films, westerns and, perhaps more specifically, Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a scene of which – the epic face-to-face between Captain Nemo and a very realistic giant squid – absolutely fascinates her.
From that pampered childhood spent between two extremely different homes, she acquires an unfailing self-confidence - “I have never been an overanxious person”, she says - and the desire to work in a group, as if to thwart a certain loneliness that can be experienced within stepfamilies.

In Jeanne Lapoirie’s family line, there is a slew of powerful and unusual women who confronted head-on the fate predictably assigned to them.
Born in Andalusia, Spain, her grandmother is forced to work at the age of seven since she is the eldest in a large family she must take care of.
She then marries a young man whose communist inclinations force him to flee to France in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War, as the dictatorship takes over the country with General Franco at its head.

Left behind in Barcelona, she raises her daughter alone until 1946, at which point she clandestinely joins her husband in France with that seven-year-old girl who doesn’t speak a word of French and discovers a father she doesn’t know. In order to make ends meet, she becomes a talented seamstress who copies and secretly sells haute-couture clothes she culls from Parisian magazines while she and her husband work at the Lacoste factory in Troyes.

A generation later, her daughter - Jeanne Lapoirie’s mother – teaches Spanish at a high school in Sarcelles. She likes to surround herself with artists and infuses her children with the prospect of a career devoted to the arts.
The choice is simple : there is drawing, painting or music. Jeanne Lapoirie will add modern technique and lean toward cinema.

During her senior year, Jeanne Lapoirie enrolls in the Louis-Lumière School competitive entrance exam. She does not get in on her first try, but no worries : after all, that will give her an extra year to go to the Paris-Censier Faculty and listen to Alain Bergala’s fascinating lectures on neo-realistic Italian cinema… as well as take on that super 8 internship that will change her life.
She enrolls again for the Louis-Lumière School entrance exam : this time, she is in. During her last year at the Louis-Lumière School, she makes her first feature film as cinematographer, Jorge Blanco’s Argie, which is selected for the Cannes Film Festival sidebar, the Critics’ Week – a mere month before graduating from the Louis-Lumière School !

Jeanne Lapoirie, août 2019
Photo Ariane Damain Vergallo - Leica M (Type 240), 90 mm Thalia T, objectif de la nouvelle gamme Leitz Thalia pour le Large Format issu d’un objectif photo très utilisé pour le portrait dans les années 1930. À pleine ouverture, l’image est très diffusée et à partir de T:2,8-3,2, elle rejoint progressivement les caractéristiques des objectifs Leitz Thalia.

Although she is barely 21, Jeanne Lapoirie is “a cinematographer who went to Cannes", to use a phrase film people understand instantly. A sort of equivalent to a Legion of Honor for a profession that loves them : one is – or isn’t - part of that highly exclusive cenacle, and being in is already the promise of a brilliant career.
That “Cannes Selection” badge will, more often than not, astound many a director who, upon meeting her, are astonished by her youth, all the more so as she looks even younger than her years.

Her career then takes a tad more conventional turn : an internship at Alga Samuelson (as the Panavision rental company was then called), short films as cinematographer and a few years as assistant camera, a job that she greatly appreciates. "We have a prime spot on a set, right between the director, the cinematographer and the actors".

In 1993, André Téchiné offers her to be B camera operator on his film Ma saison préférée (My Favorite Season), starring Catherine Deneuve who immediately takes a shine to her - Deneuve is known to support women whose trajectories she admires. Her trust and esteem give wings to Jeanne Lapoirie who, although inwardly terrified, accepts to work on The Wild Reeds that Téchiné offers her to do with him as cinematographer.

Téchiné’s aim is to turn his back on "old cinema", tap into the spontaneity and freshness of young non-professional actors and yearns to be surprised, to drift into whatever may occur during the filmmaking process. Jeanne Lapoirie immediately goes for that shooting approach and throws herself headlong into the project.
As soon as it is released, that happy, sunny film meets a great success and scores no less than four César (French Oscars). For Jeanne Lapoirie, it is an incredible business card and the founding film of her light work that people still talk to her about.

She then shoots André Téchiné’s more classic film, Les Voleurs (The Thieves), starring Catherine Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil, but soon realizes she must “leave the nest”, so to speak, and start making movies with filmmakers of her generation.

Out of the many films she subsequently works on, four gems emerge :
The viewers will long remember the pleasure given them by the simple and luminous beauty of François Ozon’s Huit femmes (8 Women) and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Un château en Italie (A Castle in Italy) as well as by the dark and gripping one of Arnaud Despallières’ Michael Kohlhaas (Age of Uprising : The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas) and Robin Campillo’s 120 battements par minute (BPM – Beats Per Minute).

BPM tells the story of Act up activists during the 80s and early 90s, the decade AIDS appeared, definitely putting an end to a certain carefreeness.
Swept away by a tidal wave of feverish youth and love, the Cannes audience gives the film a major standing ovation, Robin Campillo’s film wins the Grand Prix, followed a few months later by six César. A consecration for Jeanne Lapoirie whose light scheme and framing stick close to the film’s state-of-emergency narrative.

For night shoots on that film, Jeanne Lapoirie uses the Leitz Summilux-C lenses, as she will use the Leitz Summicron-C on her forthcoming film Benedetta. "They’re really good lenses. I never look at dailies so I must trust the equipment I use."

With Paul Verhoeven’s forthcoming Benedetta, the change of scenery is dizzying. The story-line ? To quote IMDb, “A 17th century nun in Italy suffers from disturbing religious and erotic visions. She is assisted by a companion and the relationship between the two women develops into a romantic love affair.”

Saints or demons ? Needless to say, the project is instantly preceded by a sulfurous reputation, traditionalists and ultra-religious groups get wind of the shoot, they wait in ambush and the set is blocked.
Paul Verhoeven, however, proceeds calmly and steadily despite the storm of "scandale" that is brewing. He likes to shoot in chronological order, which is easy when one is indoors, but far more complicated outdoors as the sun inexorably continues its course.
Jeanne Lapoirie accepts the challenge but the moment the sunlight, almost miraculously, hits the altar of the cloister church, she and Paul Verhoeven hasten to upset their schedule and shoot that priceless moment as fast as they can.

"I am ready to sacrifice anything and everything for that ray of sunshine, even if the next shot is not a perfect match. More than anything, I love to be guided by chance. Or fate."

(Translated from French by Henri Béhar)