Where cinematographer Caroline Champetier, AFC, speaks about her work on "The Innocents", directed by Anne Fontaine

By François Reumont for the AFC

[ English ] [ français ]

The Innocents, directed by Anne Fontaine, recounts the meeting of a young Red Cross volunteer with a group of nuns, in the Polish countryside, just after the War. The occupants of the convent, victims of rape by Red Army soldiers during the liberation of Poland, are confronting the ensuing pregnancies, which they do not want disclosed to the outside world. Torn between religious obligation and maternal instinct, the destiny of these women, who have taken vows of celibacy, is suddenly in question...
Debout à droite, Anne Fontaine, et, à sa gauche, Caroline Champetier, l'œil au viseur, sur le tournage des "Innocentes" - Photo Anna Wloch
Debout à droite, Anne Fontaine, et, à sa gauche, Caroline Champetier, l’œil au viseur, sur le tournage des "Innocentes"
Photo Anna Wloch

Anne Fontaine chose to work with Caroline Champetier, AFC, as director of photography to represent this story, after their successful collaboration on Dry Cleaning and Oh La La !. “The film in itself represents a kind of engagement”, the cinematographer comments. “A woman amongst all these women, and a real collaboration in making the film”. Champetier has a second credit as artistic advisor. “With a film shot abroad, with a local co-production, there’s always a potential for misunderstanding. That’s why Anne asked me to take on this additional role, to be sure that our artistic vision was fully carried through, and to put together the best crew on location. I was able to work on preparation for the cinematography, and also collaborate closely with the set decorator and costumes. A very good relationship with the Polish production designer, Johanna Macha, meant we worked in a very positive atmosphere of collective emulation, and I’m very proud of the result”.

It’s not the first time the DoP has worked in a monastic decor. In 2011, she was awarded the César for Best Cinematography for Of Gods and Men. “Apart from the fact that Anne Fontaine wanted to put together a team of women, she was probably also thinking of this connection with spirituality, which I had explored on Xavier Beauvois’ film. I absolutely don’t have a problem with films with religion as a theme. On the contrary, for me light partakes of the spiritual. And delving into religion, as long as it is not fanaticism, is also delving into culture”.

Preparing for the shoot in Poland, the team was immediately confronted with the problem of finding a real location for the convent. “We became aware during our initial discussions with the Polish clergy that the subject of the film was not entirely welcomed, and so we did not receive authorization to shoot on Catholic property. We found an old abandoned Baroque church surrounded by an open cloister, in the style of the Northern European Baroque.
At first glance it didn’t at all resemble the convent described in the script. But the beauty of the place, and the rightness of the surroundings, persuaded us to build the different interiors in a part of the cloister : the oratory, the infirmary, the refectory, and the cells were constructed within the rooms of the surrounding building. The film was shot in this mixed configuration of real locations and sets, with mobile walls for the cells, which had to seem very confined while leaving room for camera movements on a dance floor. Outside we built a beautiful surrounding wall to give a feeling of enclosure to an entrance which is not the main doorway - I discovered the impressive skills of the Polish set builders.”

With the language barrier, Anne Fontaine wanted to have the actors at the convent for a month before the shoot, for rehearsals in costume. The DoP made full use of this precious opportunity, using a stills camera. “Finding sometimes unexpected camera positions, I captured moments, frames, postures, and above all the ambiances of the natural light which were a constant source of inspiration to us later. Based on those images I designed the whole of the lighting for the film, mostly in shadow or in darkness.”

Discussing this relationship to darkness, and the fundamental technical choices which ensued, Champetier answered : “I had to find something to make that darkness in the script come to life, because the main character travels principally by night.
Although the film did not obviously demand a poetic approach, I felt that a neutral, slightly bluish gray at 4000K would be the ideal keylight for night scenes. A choice situated between the standard nocturnal blue of the 80s and the “natural” nights which have become fashionable in the digital era. We placed our practical sources around this base, the oil lamps or flames. Very quickly, the gaffer crew took care to observe this rule, and carefully controlled and modified the daylight sources to attain this reference temperature.”

A dark film, certainly, but above all a film featuring portraits, with a combination of very soft sources (HMI outside always reflected, and sometimes diffused once more inside or reinforced with Kinos with polys) and Leica Summilux lenses plus Glimmer filters. The DoP cites Thérèse, another major source of inspiration for this film. “We focused on being in the flesh, like Alain Cavalier and Philippe Rousselot did in 35mm back then. Of course the cameras and stories are different, but we wanted to have that strength of the faces, skin, eyes, that’s where the sisters revealed themselves.”

Among the key scenes of the film is the moment when the first of the nuns gives birth, which plunges the viewer deep into the devastating story, based on real events. “That scene, indeed all the scenes of giving birth in the film, were a major concern”, explains the cinematographer. “They had to be powerful, and also of course credible.”
Fontaine and Champetier studied a range of films with similar scenes, in particular a documentary shot by the latter on the obstetrician René Frydman, and Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men with the virtuoso scene of the birth, shot in a single take. “Seeing that scene again, we realized we wanted to shoot the birth scenes in uninterrupted shots. Not to be showy, but to capture and hold the viewer’s attention, to immerse them in the situation.” For this shot, the set of the cell was modified, with an almost double size to accommodate the dance floor, plus a setup under the mattress with the fake baby in the fake stomach. For the lighting, a very soft shadowy light at 4000K bounced back from above gives a little more visibility in the shadows, complementing the moonlight ambiance coming from the window and the oil lamp in the center of the shot. “It was important that the light be the center of the shot, the balance between warm and cold, that’s something I love in theater, in particular the work of André Diot”, explains Champetier. “That balance is something I love to work with, and where I really feel the emotion of the light.”

Another sequence where mixed color temperatures are to the fore is the attempted rape in the forest, by a group of Russian soldiers. “In this scene, we really searched for the right forest, a tangle of dead trees that weave a dense web in the background, very graphic, kind of Gustave Doré feel. I backlit with two 9K projectors, with the flames and truck headlamps lighting the faces. In this scene, the only one shot handheld, I had to exchange the Sony F65 on which I’d shot the rest of the film for a slightly lighter F55, which also gave slightly more texture in the structure of the image.”

The film takes place mostly at night, or at the day’s end - the sun arrives in the last scenes of the film, notably in the celebration with the children in the convent. Champetier explains : “The sun had to appear. And of course, the day we shot that scene, the weather was bad. We still were able to bring light into the cloisters, using direct sources at this point, diffused, in contrast to the rest of the film. This scene represents the end of tyranny, peace at least for now, and the (false) sunlight incarnates the spiritual side evoked earlier.”

(Interview conducted by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Lucy Allwood)

In the portfolio below, some stills on the preparation and the shooting, followed by photograms from the film.