Tribute to Jean Penzer

By Marc Salomon, consulting member of the AFC

Contre-Champ AFC n°321

[ English ] [ français ]

Born on 1st October 1927 at Livry-Gargan to parents of Russian birth. His father was born at Krisilo (today in Ukraine) and his mother at Vitebsk (today in Belarus). They met in Odessa before moving to France in 1911, where they were naturalized in 1928. Jean-Bernard Penzer studied cinema at the Vaugirard cinema school from 1945-1947 (same class as Jean Boffety, Pierre Tchernia, Georges Leclerc, René Mathelin and Georges Dufaux) before working as an assistant cameraman from 1947-1955.

His first job was with Léonce-Henry Burel in 1948 (Le Mystère Barton) and then he worked with Pierre Petit, André Bac (Le Point du jour) and André Dumaître, before turning to short film and industrial films. "I had a modest role in making film that interested me little, which disheartened me. Then I turned towards short films, which was very lively. Many of them were made with sometimes very large budgets. I learned my trade by shooting and lighting such films." He co-signed the cinematography on Mon chien (a short film by Georges Franju) with Georges Delaunay in 1955.
After a feature-length documentary film by Robert Ménégoz shot in China in Agfacolor, Jean Penzer worked on a fiction with Philippe de Broca (Les Jeux de l’amour, on the recommendations of Claude Chabrol). Released in June 1960, in the middle of the Nouvelle Vague period (Breathless had already been out for barely three months), this first feature-length film by Philippe de Broca is enhanced by a sculptural and nuanced black and white cinematography, both elegant and modern, characteristic of a hybrid aesthetic that is often neglected by historians, who classify films as either classical lighting or "New Wave". The credits were prestigious, indeed, with Pierre Lhomme at the camera, Alain Levent and Gilbert Duhalde as assistant cameramen.

Les Jeux de l'amour - Captures d'images d'après BR
Les Jeux de l’amour
Captures d’images d’après BR

Still with Philippe de Broca, Penzer worked on Le Farceur and then L’Amant de cinq jours, both in B&W. But as the director was preparing the shooting of Cartouche in 1962 in Dyaliscope and Eastmancolor, producer Alexandre Mnouchkine demanded he work with Christian Matras. Penzer worked with the director again on Le Diable par la queue in 1968 and Les Caprices de Marie in1969.

Le Diable par la queue - Captures d'images d'après DVD
Le Diable par la queue
Captures d’images d’après DVD

In the meantime, he worked with Louis Daquin (La Foire aux cancres), Claude Faraldo (La Jeune morte), Jean Chapot (La Voleuse) and Philippe Condroyer (Un homme à abattre), his first feature-length fiction film in color, in 1967.

In the 1970s, Jean Penzer displayed a great ductility by first signing off on the cinematography of five films starring Jean-Paul Belmondo (directed by Philippe Labro, Henri Verneuil or Philippe de Broca) while working with Marguerite Duras (Détruire dit-elle), Liliane de Kermadec (Aloïse) and Chantal Ackerman (Les Rendez-vous d’Anna) before beginning a close and inspired collaboration with Jacques Demy (Lady Oscar) and Betrand Blier (Préparez vos mouchoirs). He shot four films with the former (including Une Chambre en ville and Trois places pour le 26), and five with the latter (including Buffet froid, La Femme de mon pote, Notre histoire, and Tenue de soirée).

Buffet froid - Captures d'images d'après BR
Buffet froid
Captures d’images d’après BR

Laid up as a result of a serious car accident, he was forced to hand the reins over to Sacha Vierny on Beau père in 1981. He also had a brief experience in the USA on Christian Blackwood’s Black Harvest, shot in 1973 in Kentucky. He is even said to have been approached by Woody Allen for a project that never saw the light of day.

His career ended in the early 1990s with Amelia Lopez O’Neil, by Valeria Sarmiento and Le Retour de Casanova by Edouard Niermans.

When we met Jean Penzer many years ago, he told us that his favorite films amongst his own filmography were Les Culottes rouges (Alex Joffé, 1962), Aloïse (Liliane de Kermadec, 1974), Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (Chantal Ackerman, 1978), Buffet froid (Bertrand Blier, 1979), Malevil (Christian de Challonge, 1981) et Une chambre en ville (Jacques Demy, 1982).

Throughout his career, Jean Penzer followed and perpetuated the path blazed by those he admired : Léonce-Henry Burel, Roger Hubert, and Gianni Di Venanzo, "those whose approach was open because they renewed it with each film." As for Jacques Demy’s films, he modestly recognized that their coherence came from the work of set designer Bernard Evein and that he was mainly careful not to betray the sets and the colors.

Trois places pour le 26 - Captures d'images d'après BR
Trois places pour le 26
Captures d’images d’après BR

Finally, let us note that he won the César for Best Cinematography in 1986 for On ne meurt que deux fois by Jacques Deray, after three prior nominations : Buffet froid by Bertrand Blier in 1980, Malevil by Christian de Challonge in 1982, and Une chambre en ville by Jacques Demy in 1983.

He had been a honorary member of the AFC since 2007.

Malevil - Captures d'images d'après DVD
Captures d’images d’après DVD

Interviewed by Christian Gilles in 1989*, Jean Penzer said : "I fall in love with everyone I meet, but if I’ve worked on very "different" films, that’s because I can be very different, too ! I want to try my hand at everything, I’m constantly searching. Anyway, nothing is ever definitively acquired in this profession… That’s why I want to renew myself. Of course, that’s very difficult to do…"
The thumbnail image above shows Jean Penzer on location of Le Vieil homme et l’enfant, by Claude Berri, 1967.

* Christian Gilles, Les Directeurs de la photo et leur image - Editions Dujarric (1989)