Rémy Chevrin discusses his work on Christophe Honoré’s film "Room 212"

par Rémy Chevrin

[ English ] [ français ]

Cinematographer Rémy Chevrin, AFC, sat down with François Reumont to discuss his work on Christophe Honoré’s film Room 212. Here, we offer you a transcript of their interview.

During our first meeting to discuss, Christophe described it in these terms : « It’s a tale for adults, an evocation in which the viewer must be put in a situation of experimentation, almost like a “brain-film”. »

Two sets face-to-face
The structure of the film is based on two spaces that face one another. A couple breaks up in an apartment. The woman crosses the street and takes up residence in a hotel room directly across the way. It’s a closed environment composed of three spaces : the street, the apartment, and the hotel rooms. Observing what is going on across the way occupies a lot of space in the film, the characters that go in and out of the rooms. We immediately wondered if we should play the real observations or if we should cheat. In the end, because for the actors it is pretty exceptional to be able to play with the other set across from you, we built the two sets in studio : the hotel façade and four rooms four meters off of the ground, and the apartment across, one floor lower, on a two-meter-tall platform. The street that separates them wasn’t built, because that wasn’t the goal, as they are three different spaces, not connected together.

The film begins at daytime, then goes to dusk, and after five or ten minutes, becomes night, which lasts for the rest of the film up to the end, in daylight. The two spaces were handled for night, which simplified everything from an artistic and technical standpoint. Another difficulty was being able to make a bit of fog fall at the same time as the snow, so that we could disorient the space a bit. I travelled often between real exteriors with snow and fog in Paris and interiors with a sensation of fog produced thanks to a Hampshire Frost gelatine over the windows, whose gradient at 1/16, 1/8, ¼, ½ could be chosen according to the lens and the required blurriness in relation to what was across. Of course, fog in studio would have been very complicated to manage !

A tale for adults
Christophe and I wondered every day where we should place the cursor : him, with his actors, the screenplay and the acting intentions, and me with the point of view of the camera and the lighting effects. We like these kinds of challenges, Christophe is a master of them, even if he’s made a number of naturalistic films where the characters have a certain lived experience. He likes to measure himself against these questions : « To what point can a character be false, fabricated ? » We wanted to take some distance from what we’d done up to then, to choose the studio and to play it to the end. It’s also a way of creating a cinematic proposition that takes the road less travelled. We wanted our tale to take the viewer on a journey, and keep some surprises up our sleeve for the viewer, in terms of the places, the colours, and the performance. A bit like when you turn the pages of a book and you let yourself go to the sensations and the emotions and not the realism of the narration. There are jump cuts, particular jumps in time and in space that I find interesting because it’s a cinematic proposition that I hadn’t had for quite some time and that made me think and change my ideas about how to craft the shot : what are we trying to say about the story, keeping in mind the original and rather whimsical, even fantastic, original idea ?

The character boxes
We didn’t want to situate ourselves in a cinema à la Guitry, where we would only have the flats of the sets, so there are a lot of shots that include ceilings in the frame, so that we could close the characters up inside their boxes. That was important. It required a pretty complex structure to enable us to remove or replace the ceiling as we saw fit, which led us to a double lighting technology, that let me light the set from the flats or, when the ceiling was down, from the props on set, as on location.
In the same idea, Christophe wanted to film the characters from above, as though they were in boxes. He’d been very impressed by Resnais’ experiments, and particularly by some scenes in Mon oncle d’Amérique. In studio, we had to find solutions to create travelling high-angle shots of 12-15 metres. The set was too small for a crane, a drone would have been possible but it would have created too much wind, so the only tool capable of making those shots was the XD Motion Cablecam, which is often used in sports and action films : the camera is on a remote-controlled head that moves on cables hung above the set. It’s a unique tool that is clearly suited for studio productions, and it brings you the idea of the characters in a situation of emotional experimentation. It corresponded to a moment in the screenplay where the characters are each asking themselves questions and the shots work well.

I didn’t really ask myself questions about it. 35 mm is more expensive, yes, if you shoot 200,000 metres of film and if you have three cameras, three series, and three zooms, that’s for sure ! But Christophe is a filmmaker of moderation and I share that with him. He can do up to four takes at times, and usually it’s the first that makes it into the final cut. The choice of film is appropriate for how we work : calm and concentration on set, the sacred moment of “action”, the way in which people approach their work, which is aimed at the creation of the shot, and that gives the film, but also the way we make it, a truly special colour. From an artistic point of view, the pleasure of 35 mm comes from its texture, its body, the way it renders skin and characters. The main difference is of course sensitivity : I find myself in studio with Kodak 5219 at 320 ISO, which is two stops denser than digital sensors at 1 200 to 1 600 ISO. That changes the tools you use, the time you have to work, and the way that we approach depth of field. But because nowadays there are LEDs that are as powerful as some of the more classic Fresnels, but consume little energy, are easy to manoeuvre, and very rich in colours, I didn’t suffer from having two stops fewer.

Camille Cotin and Chiara Mastroianni are the main characters, along with Benjamin Biolay and Vincent Lacoste. This is a film of women, a film of skin, a film that is rather close to the faces and to the characters. The focal lengths went from 25 mm to 35 mm, few long focal-lengths, except for a couple of points of view from the windows on the sets across the way. We wanted to be organic in the gaze, the text, and the characters, which is rather often the relationship that Christophe has with his characters, so I chose soft, round lenses, the Leica Summilux.
The film is located in the gaze of a woman who is considering her past, her failures and her joys : we didn’t want to make this gaze dramatic and hard, so the lighting is soft, which is very difficult to channel so as not to overlight the set and make it look too theatrical. That softness allows us to have a very big tenderness for those filmed characters with a lot of love and…humour.

Two endings
We made two endings. Voilà. [Laughter]. I know which one is in the final cut but I obviously can’t speak about it ! We asked ourselves a lot of questions about it, because we shot the film mostly in order, so the end was shot at the end, and the film took on its own colour during shooting. We took some distance from what we’d originally agreed on, even artistically speaking, on the contrasts, the very bright side, because the film, which we’d thought was very light, became more serious, and the more serious part ended up being lighter. Almost like a floating film, not like automatic filming, but because we allowed ourselves to be inspired. We were on set for five weeks, we invented things that weren’t necessarily written in the screenplay, and we allowed ourselves to be carried by what the space and the actors could give us.

(Interview conducted by François Reumont, retranscribed and formatted by Hélène de Roux, on behalf of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)

In the portfolio below, see on set and shooting photos of this film.

Chambre 212
Production : Philippe Martin and David Thion
Set design : Stéphane Taillasson
Costumes : Olivier Beriot