Pierre Lhomme – The Army of Shadows: “Cinema is a story of encounters” [Interview]

Pierre Lhomme
Abaca

France 3 will rebroadcast Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic tonight. Première had met its chief operator shortly before his disappearance, in July 2019.

The third channel will offer this evening a great classic, Army of Shadowswith Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse and Simone Signoret. The painful story of the members of a Resistance network confronted, on a daily basis, with death and betrayal in occupied France. Trailer :

Interview originally published on July 5, 2019: France’s greatest cinematographer has died. We share one of our last interviews with the man who lit the cinemas of Jean Eustache, Jean-Paul Rappeneau or even Jean-Pierre Melville, who is discussed in this final interview.

Do you remember exactly your first meeting with Jean-Pierre Meville?

He had arranged to meet me at noon in front of the station in a provincial town. On the square, empty, he was waiting for me near his Camaro, white I believe, with his Stetson, his Ray-bans, his mastic raincoat… It was quite impressive, especially since knowing his reputation, I was a little tense. Melville was in fact a magnificent seducer, a little perverted. He could give me “Pierre” or “mon petit Pierre”, then suddenly “Monsieur Lhomme” to resume his stripes with authority.

It was Henri Decaë who had illuminated his previous masterpieces. He explained to you why he called on you on this one?

I never asked him the question. He knew well the few films in which I had participated as The chamade by Alain Cavalier. We had in common to like cold colors because they are more faithful to the grain of the skin. He wanted an image as monochromatic as possible, in blue and green tones. It was important for him that the resistance fighters didn’t look chubby, as if they were coming back from winter sports… In fact, we would have liked to shoot in black and white, but the film was expensive, it was a risk. too big.

You have several times said that you pushed Melville to take more care with the artistic direction of the film. It’s surprising coming from a filmmaker that we classify in the category of great formalists.

I didn’t “push” him. I regretted that Théo Meurisse, the set designer, didn’t have time to give more realism to certain sets in the studio. Too often, we opened a door or a window on cardboard. Melville replied that in Hitchcock’s films, that didn’t bother anyone. Let’s say that an image that was intended to be naturalistic did not go well with the pasteboard. But only the poor operator and the poor decorator see the aesthetic approximations!

There is still this improbable scene where Charles De Gaulle is played, for a very short overall shot, by an extra wearing a mask! That’s pretty bad…

But it’s not a mask! Melville had De Gaulle’s face painted, applied as best we could to the actor…everything had been thought out so that the look was just right. We cried with laughter behind the camera when we saw the result! Melville made his classes in poverty, if I may say so, with limited means. But since he was very clever, he had managed to develop a certain skill to get out of delicate situations.

In the delicate situation genre, we say a lot about the filming of the pre-credits where fake German soldiers parade on the Champs-Elysées. And in particular that Melville would have shot it alone, without authorization.

It’s a legend. The problem was to get the Champs-Elysées empty, a request finally accepted. For the record, the soldiers are played by dancers who rehearsed for a week at the studio in Boulogne. Melville thought no one else would be able to goose-step. He was obsessed with this shot to the point that in the days leading up to its shooting, he kept leaving the set saying “Cocos, I’m going to see my dancers!“.

How did you manage the conflicts between Melville and Lino Ventura or Simone Signoret?

What can a team do when a director begins to humiliate an actor? You have to be as calm and caring as possible with the person in question, which was not difficult with Ventura, an amazing guy. Melville was constantly settling scores, he was a very tough man. He had had an unresolved dispute over The second breath which he made Lino pay. With Signoret, it was more insidious. He esteemed the actress but not the woman, whose convictions he did not share. She was at that time unhappy and physically damaged. Once or twice, I suggested to Melville to cut certain shots in two, so as to approach Simone by changing angle and size. When I couldn’t film his gaze well, I was still very annoyed. Melville didn’t care.

Why had he chosen them?

The cinematographic requirement came first for him.

You are sometimes credited in the credits with Walter Wottitz…

I ended up getting angry with Melville. When he asked me, long after filming, to edit, I was no longer free – I was preparing for the Pan-African Festival with William Klein. I still thought about these connections and offered him a colleague whom I had briefed beforehand – Yann Le Masson, who had filmed certain sequences, including the day in London. Melville didn’t credit it (this is the custom for second-team operators), whereas he did for Walter Wottitz, who also did some shots. He also called me to tell me how upset he was by his presence in the credits. A little revenge from Jean-Pierre…

Melville, Rappeneau, Eustache, Duras… We get the impression that you like working with strong personalities.

Cinema is a story of encounters, some are provoked, others are the result of chance. Why do we shoot a very visual film or a film with a lot of dialogue? You can’t listen and see at the same time, I agree with Bresson on that. Looking back – forty years later – while supervising the restoration of the film, I realized how Bressonian Jean-Pierre Melville was. All his moments of great cinematography, basically, are Bresson with great actors.

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