Myriam Vinocour, Day 1

By Ariane Damain-Vergallo for Leitz Cine Weltzar

par Ernst Leitz Wetzlar La Lettre AFC n°299

[ English ] [ français ]

On a specific day in September 1984 (a year George Orwell definitively made famous), in a small courtyard off the Rue Rollin in Paris, the final results are – at last ! - to be posted of the competitive exam to enter (or not) the Louis Lumière Film School’s prestigious Camera Dept. Myriam Vinocour has been waiting all summer for this moment because, mere months ago, right after she took the exam, she ranked twenty-fifth… but only the top twenty-four were taken. But who knows ? Perhaps Lady Luck is in a good mood and one of the twenty-four stood down ?

Flash back. Way back.

Eighty years before, the Russian revolution and the pogroms that followed had, in perfect symmetry, forced her two great-grandfathers to flee. One came from Poland, the other from Romania, and they both ended up in Paris, both becoming tailors, but never meeting each other.
In 1940, the two families left Paris to escape the anti-Jewish laws and took refuge, one in Montluçon, the other in Clermont-Ferrand, two small towns in France’s free zone.
Despite the deep anguish aroused by the endless, and potentially deadly, hide-and-seek game, life goes on, people still get married and have babies.
Myriam Vinocour’s parents were both born during the war and, as a child, her mother even had to hide in the countryside until the Liberation.

But those scars never heal. Even long after the war, underneath the joy of just being alive, the newfound freedom and the prospect of a potential future, there will always be a deep melancholy and a sadness in her parents’ hearts, however loving they may be. A single child, Myriam Vinocour is lonely but turbulent – quite a tomboy, actually, always on the lookout for thrills, happiness and… just life.

At 11, she is fascinated by François Truffaut’s L’Argent de poche (Small Change) and she strangely identifies with little Julien, the beaten, abused child in the film. At the end of which, actor Jean-François Stévenin, who plays a teacher, concludes : "As a child, I felt that adults have every right and that they can direct their lives as they see fit."
These words ring ever so true to Myriam Vinocour that she is seized with a passion for François Truffaut. She absolutely wants to meet him – not to mention live a life where one decides for oneself.

Around that same time, her best friend drags her to the Pathé Studios to watch the shooting of a children’s show, "Casimir". Casimir is a bright orange giant dinosaur with yellow and red dots, which is a huge hit with family audiences. On the set, her friend’s sister is maneuvering a big studio camera, a helmet screwed to her ears.
Myriam Vinocour is fascinated. That. Is. Exactly. It ! She will be a cameraperson ! The following is a fairly long strategy that runs over several years.

She hates maths yet she enrolls in scientific studies just to be able to compete for the Louis-Lumière Film School entrance exam. At 16, she adamantly refuses to follow her parents to Lille, preferring to stay in Paris (and its movie theatres !) and take care of her paralyzed grandmother. Lonely, dark years will follow, geared, however, to one single goal : to pass the competitive exam and MAKE FILMS.
End of Flashback.

Myriam Vinocour - Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo - Leica M, Summicron-C 100 mm
Myriam Vinocour
Photo Ariane Damain-Vergallo - Leica M, Summicron-C 100 mm

Yes, back to that September 1984 day in front of the notice board on which the final results are posted. Fortunately for Myriam Vinocour, serving in the military is compulsory for boys before a specific age, and the young woman bursts out with joy when she spots her name on the list, in lieu of a future draftee’s. "My life began that day, at that moment," she says.
A month later, François Truffaut suddenly dies. She is crushed and cries her eyes out because she will never be able to meet him again. François Truffaut, the man who had kept a child’s soul !

Her beginnings in the film industry are difficult. At the time, Alga Samuelson is an important camera equipment rental house located in Vincennes and it is essential for future camera assistants to show up there. Myriam Vinocour goes there every day. She takes the subway, enters the company’s large hall and climbs the squeaky staircase leading to the benches where camera assistants do their tests. But then ; she immediately comes down and take the subway without talking to anyone.
The man in charge of the lenses calibration, a moody, volatile character that everyone fears, has observed her routine… and takes her under his wing.

Little by little, she begins to work on feature films and, fairly quickly, becomes first assistant camera to young cinematographer Alain Choquart on all of Bertrand Tavernier’s films. Her "cowboy" side suits him just fine. She watches him do things instinctively, at times haphazardly, and discovers that making films also implies a strong physical commitment.
On Bertrand Tavernier’s L627, which depicts the daily life of narcotics cops, they will stake out for hours around Barbès Rochechouart, one of Paris’s dodgiest areas, piling up in a van with a camera and a 300mm telephoto lens behind a two-way mirror in order to capture shots of real dealers and real customers.
"I loved being an assistant camera, a spot I found comfortable".

Her turning 30 brings a whole slew of questions. Motherhood vs cinematography. Becoming a mother vs. a full-fledged cinematographer. A cruel dilemma that obviously none of her male colleagues is confronted with. She opts for cinematographer instead of mother, as combining the two would be too harrowing. Let life decide, she thinks. Adopting children doesn’t mean you’ll love them any less than biological ones, does it ?

Myriam Vinocour makes her first (tiny) steps as cinematographer on TV movies and as second unit camera on feature films.
In 2002, cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou is in Cambodia and Thailand preparing Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Deux frères (Two Brothers), that year’s biggest Franco-British co-production. He calls her to operate a second camera for a few weeks. She gets on so well with Jean-Jacques Annaud, a director generally deemed difficult and demanding, that she remains for the entire duration - ten months ! – of the shoot. Eventually, she will even operate the main camera.

From then on, she feels legitimate enough to make the jump and be the cinematographer on a feature film. Her first film in that capacity is Bienvenue en Suisse (Welcome to Switzerland), directed by Léa Fazer, with whom she will make two other features.

As time goes by, Myriam Vinocour discovers that being a woman is often the first reason why she is chosen. Well ahead of her talent and a flawless experience gained on dozens of films. Because women-directors often choose alter-egos.
And if they willingly entrust Myriam Vinocour with filming their actresses, her female outlook sometimes destabilizes said actresses ; they are so used to the two-way seduction game with male cinematographers.
But it evolves... slowly.

Myriam Vinocour, however, has the privilege and pride to film Sophie Marceau, one of France’s most popular actresses, and to collaborate with her on one of her directorial endeavours, Madame Mills, une voisine si parfaite (Madame Mills, Such a Perfect Neighbor), a fable about female-male duality.
Vinocour’s attention to female stars never slackens, for she understands the frailty their status brings them over time. "Being attentive is very important."
She always devotes special attention to the beauty of the actresses she lights and frames.
Which is why she always uses Leitz Summilux-C lenses, even on small-budget films. "Those lenses sublimate their faces, enhancing their beauty in the most natural fashion. I like a strongly contrasted light and the Summilux-Cs bring it extra-softness."

More than just a profession, for Myriam Vinocour, filmmaking is a way of life, as she puts a lot of herself in a shoot. A commitment that would have touched François Truffaut whose love for cinema made him state in Day for Night : "Films are more harmonious than life".

(Translated from French by Henri Béhar)