Pierre Lhomme obituary: a DP and film lover, from the New Wave to Merchant Ivory

The maverick French cinematographer and cineaste rose up with his free-wheeling friends in the nouvelle vague, Chris Marker chief amongst them, but expanded his horizons shooting for Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson, Jean Eustache and James Ivory.

5 April 1930–4 July 2019.

Geoffrey Macnab

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Pierre Lhomme

Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme shot films for such giants of French cinema as Robert Bresson, Jean Eustache, Jean-Pierre Melville and Chris Marker. However, when he attended Amsterdam’s IDFA (the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) in 2017, he made it clear that he regarded his work with the American director James Ivory as highly as anything else in his career.

A cinephile who used to haunt the Cinemathèque Française in Paris, Lhomme liked to recall an incident when, during his military service in the mid 1950s, he was posted in Germany. At the time, Jean Renoir was staging Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the amphitheatre in Arles. All the ‘cinema addicts’ from Paris were going to the production and Lhomme was determined to join them. “I asked for a permit because I have a meeting in Arles with the master of my profession. And the officer gave us the permit to go to France.” He made the pilgrimage back to France with Jacques Rivette, Jean-Claude Brialy and various others, all equally besotted by Renoir’s cinema.

Lhomme’s first important credit was the Paris-made street documentary Le Joli Mai, (1962) which the cinematographer co-directed with Chris Marker. They were making it with the prototype of a new lightweight camera, the KMT Coutant Éclair. The synched sound recording was discreet. The result was a film in which the subjects spoke with a naturalness and freedom rarely captured in documentary before.

Le Joli Mai (1963)

Le Joli Mai (1963)

“We discovered Paris as we never did before. We discovered people who were very at ease with us and with the camera,” Lhomme said of the film, in which he and Marker interviewed all sorts of Parisiens – students, priests and workers among them – going about their daily lives. The film was made just after the French war in Algeria had finished, in the early weeks of peace.

They shot roughly 50 hours of material. It was still “extremely painful” for him more than half a century later even to think about the 47½ hours of footage that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film – and which was subsequently lost.

Lhomme and Marker had met in the Cinemathèque in Paris. They had a few friends in common, Alain Resnais among them, but before they started working together, they had never had a conversation lasting more than two minutes.

The cinematographer likened his collaboration with Marker to “a friendly conversation, an exchange. He creates a mood which makes you comfortable and gives you ideas. We had a very close and friendly relationship because little by little we discovered each other as we were discovering  Paris. He creates around him a warm atmosphere, very rich.”

His collaboration with with directors like Melville (Army of Shadows) and Jean-Paul Rappeneau (for whom he shot Cyrano de Bergerac) was very different. “When you work with Melville or Rappeneau, the first relation comes through the scenario. You have to understand what is written and what it demands from you,” he told me.

The Army of Shadows (1969)

The Army of Shadows (1969)

Much of Lhomme’s early work had been with filmmakers of his own age and who were also part of the burgeoning New Wave. That was why shooting Army of Shadows was such a culture shock. He called Melville “the first adult I worked with, much older than I. He was very authoritarian. I was not used to this relationship with a director because the films I had done before, I did with friends of mine, the same generation, same kind of culture. With Melville, it was like the boss and the servant!”

Melville liked to shoot in the studio – a departure for a cinematographer then far more accustomed to working on location. Having worked as a jazz musician, Lhomme tended to take a freewheeling approach to his craft. “I don’t have preconceived ideas about what is a good film. I love cinema from top to toe, not just one category,” he used to say. (As a student in New York, he was close friends with saxophonist Sidney Bechet.)

La Maman et la putain (1973)

La Maman et la putain (1973)

Troubled young director Jean Eustache knew Lhomme’s assistant. That was how the cinematographer was approached to work on The Mother and the Whore (1973). At moments of stress, Eustache, a big admirer of Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), which Lhomme had shot, would sometimes ask forlornly: “What would Bresson have done?”

Lhomme remembered Bresson himself as “fascinating” but “not enjoyable” to work with, and not “what we can call a nice person”.

James Ivory, who became a close friend, was altogether more sympathetic. On the Merchant Ivory productions on which Lhomme worked, Ivory would generally be too preoccupied with the actors to interfere in the lighting or framing. “He trusts you. You are in charge of the images. He is in charge of the acting.” (For his part, Ivory relished “letting loose” the maverick French DP with the New Wave background on an English costume drama.)

Le Divorce (2003)

Le Divorce (2003)

Lhomme’s last feature was Ivory’s Le Divorce (2003). He never worked professionally on digital. “As an amateur, yes, but not as a professional. It is too tricky… and also, I am not used to having a very impressive post-production. I am used to doing the most important things on the ground while shooting, not two or three months after.”

Asked about his influences, Lhomme would often return to his lasting admiration for Italian neorealist cinema. “We had a letter from Italy every day,” he said of his formative years watching the work of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica et al. “The Italian cinema was so good, so good, and had a great influence on what we call the New Wave.”

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