A Woman's Life
A film from
Antoine Héberlé , AFC
Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau
23 novembre 2016
A Woman's Life (Une Vie) is the third film that I have worked on together with Stéphane Brizé, a film director who never stops questioning his approach to filming or searching for what he calls "the real thing" and "what exists" in the shot.
Stéphane had already spoken to me about his plan to create a screen adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's novel well before The Measure of a Man (La Loi du marché) in which he experimented with a new system without me. Spurred on by his latest experience, he asked me to create an even greater level of freedom and flexibility but also to keep clutter and the number of people present in the actors' space to an absolute minimum. He wanted very few pieces of cinematographic equipment to be in their field of vision apart from, of course, the boom and the camera on my shoulder recording the action in the moment and at the right distance.
After several days and two films together, Stéphane gave me free rein to "hunt out" the sensitive material for editing in a single sequence shot which was later cut up. There was no intentional framing – instead, the idea was simply to capture what was happening right there in that little bedroom, between Jeanne and Julien, or in the kitchen of the château between Jeanne and Rosalie or in the garden between Jeanne and her father.
Between takes, Stéphane would specify where particular focus needed to be placed or would come up with a completely different approach, and then I would go back through the door and slip into this cocoon created for the actors where the written destinies of the characters were playing out. It was such an incredible experience to just let myself be swept away with the actors and to follow their rhythm. I just had to listen to them and watch the situation unfolding in front of me in real time. After each take, I had to "forget" everything and wipe the slate clean as much as possible in my mind so as to reinvent a shoot and, above all else, prevent me from anticipating the upcoming action. In fact, it was even better if I was a little late on the uptake and unsure of myself, like when filming a documentary where you don't know what is going to happen but can feel it.
When we were preparing, both of us really wanted to work on film stock to achieve that stunning texture, that matter on top of matter and right rendering of skin tones. On the other hand, Stéphane was keen for me to work with zoom to continuously adjust the frame and ensure imperceptible breathing in addition to the shoulder floating. The takes were going to be long and the lighting had to be authentic for the era which meant working at night with candles and oil lamps – we actually switched these for more efficient kerosene lamps (but which, historically speaking, weren't around until the end of the story, towards 1855).
In order to try to fulfil all these requirements, we did two test shoots with Judith Chemla and Jean-Pierre Darroussin in costume, one of which with period décor, with a 3-perf Aaton Penelope camera, and a recently released Panasonic VariCam 35 which caught my eye with its magic "5000 ISO" button.
The Leica Summilux and the Kodak 5219 pushed one stop and really helped us at night, but how would we be able to zoom at T:2.8 and film 20-minute takes as Stéphane wanted to be free to do that?
With the invaluable help of Lionel Kopp at Film Factory, we worked the images captured by the VariCam 35 "to the bone" to find a beautiful texture that would help us to forget about working on film stock. The 5000 ISO helped us to shoot every night by candlelight and using zoom, sometimes even with a 1.4 teleconverter!
During the trial runs, we also tried the frame with a 2.35:1 and 1.33:1 ratio. For Stéphane, there was nothing in between.
Whereas the anamorphic Scope format completely gave way to the surrounding nature, which is so important in the narrative to highlight the passage of time and the physical sensations of Jeanne, the 1.33:1 ratio enclosed and isolated Jeanne – whether as a full-body shot or a close-up – and directed our probing gaze to her inner state. We chose the latter option and resolved to be careful with postures.
Finally, to ensure that the acting space was as free from any signs of modern life as possible, we provided lighting from outside with 18 kW on a boom. Inside, I captured the lighting with a set of small reflectors and occasionally an SL1 LED panel or a battery-powered "flex-light". Frames with different densities adjusted the light coming in through the huge windows for full-length shots.
We shot the film in three sessions to capture the different seasons and really highlight the passage of time in a narrative which spans approximately 30 years.
On that matter, I would like to praise the remarkable work of Garance Van Rossum. The finesse of her make-up artistry in making Judith Chemla and the other actors look both younger and older allowed us to shoot this film without any special effects and with a huge degree of freedom. And we mustn't forget the magical touch of hairstylist Véronique Boitout.
I was lucky enough to work with production designer Valérie Saradjian for a third time who was accompanied by a small team specialising in this type of design and brought its great mood along!
I would also finally like to thank my wonderful team who agreed to this flexible approach and adopted it with smiles on their faces! There were just five of us doing everything, apart from a few reinforcements to get everything on track at the start of each of the three shoots.
First assistant camera: Marie Célette
Camera and optics - Panavision: Panasonic Varicam 35 Zoom Angénieux Optimo 45-120 mm. A 1.4 teleconverter and a doubler which were extremely useful. A Cooke S3 series, of which only the 25 mm and 32 mm were used for some wide shots.