As a child, Eric Gautier spends a long time in his grandmother’s flower shop in the Paris suburb of Bondy. He daydreams while devouring the Tintin comic albums (conceived and designed by Belgian artist-auteur Hergé), not knowing yet that his desire for cinema would be born right there in the midst of mortuary crowns and that, much later, he would say: “I owe everything to Hergé”.
Éric Gautier was born in the 1960s in a working-class area of Paris that no longer exists. Rows of small houses, a square and bistros lined the Place des Fêtes with the same vertiginous escalator that descends into the bowels of the subway. With Tintin, he discovers the power of extraordinarily evocative images. So stories — journeys — are possible and extravagant characters have to exist somewhere, right ?
Later, as a teenager, he discovers music, which becomes a passion.
His destiny, therefore, seems preordained : he will be a jazz musician.
Jazz is that ever-changing, ever-evolving music that keeps reinventing itself and, – hence, a potential career path for this quicksilver teenager with an already boundless energy.
The key factor that diverts it all ? His encounter, around the age of 15, with two female French teachers who, in turns, introduce him to cinema and literature.
His parents are modest and culture is virtually non-existant in the Gautier household when young Eric first sees Milos Forman’s One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest. And when he discovers Albert Camus’ masterpiece Myth of Sisyphus, he realizes fate can take him way beyond the world of Saint Germain des Prés’ jazz clubs.
Toying, while still in high school, with the idea of trying the competitive entrance exam to the Louis Lumiere Film School, he opts for a « baccalaureate » (high school diploma) in science – and barely passes, at the oral retake, thanks to a top mark in Literature. He also barely manages to pass after one unsuccessful attempt the Louis Lumière School entrance exam. Relief ? Not quite. Better go for «Disappointement», at least initially.
For on his very first day, he has to entirely reassemble a camera (Cameflex) which, to him, looks more like a gas mask than one of those huge – and dream-like – Mitchell cameras one saw on American film sets !
Fortunately, he also meets Jean-César Chiabaut, François Truffaut’s and Robert Bresson’s camera operator, who gives him the one simple film lesson that still guides Gautier today – yes, despite the fact that he has designed the light patterns for more than fifty films since.
The question Chiabaut asks is, « How do you film a chair? A simple chair against a wall. »
In lieu of an answer (not knowing what to say), young Eric returns him the question. To which Chiabaut simply replies: “It depends on the story you are telling”.
Now it all clicks into place ! Images are to serve the story. Tintin of course!
Éric Gautier already knew it, he’d always known it, and he’d always know it.
Then the Louis Lumière 1980 school year has the incredible opportunity to meet the great cinematographer Bruno Nuytten. Gautier catches Nuytten’s attention, the man offers him to enroll, after graduation, for an internship on Alain Resnais’s film La Vie est un roman(« Life Is a Bed of Roses », 1983).
At once amazed at being chosen and unaware of his good fortune, Éric Gautier spends the entire shoot nested, as it were, right next to the big Mitchell camera that he three phase powers. A vantage point from which he observes director Alain Resnais falling in love with actress Sabine Azema – and discovers that cinema and love are irremediably linked.
He does not know yet that, thirteen years later, a widower at 34, redemption will come to him when he meets an actress on the set of Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep. Which brings him back to Albert Camus’ Myth of Sysiphus that so fascinated him as a teenager : Be brave enough to climb that mountain, however exhausting the climb. Never ever stop believing you will succeed. “I have faith in life”.
Once Alain Resnais’ shooting wraps, Éric Gautier recognizes he does not want to be just an assistant camera operator. At the age of 22, he manages to earn his first salary as cinematographer on a small institutional film for a packaging company in Brittany that wants to teach its handlers how to carry the boxes.
He realizes it’s not that easy to shoot and that in the end, it’s always the same question that arises.
How to tell a story?
He then has the hunch he must learn from tomorrow’s young directors.
“I understood things had to be done with people from my generation.” He designs the lighting for almost seventy short films directed with young filmmakers he meets, among others, at the IDHEC (today’s FEMIS).
He wants to “do things with passion”, live fast.
At the time, he is more than apt to get up in the middle of the night and on a mere whim, get all the way to the far end of Normandy just to watch the sun rise on the Channel,
“Even now, I hardly live in the present ; I live in the very near future. Like Giacometti’s “Walking Man I never know in advance what my desire will be like, very much “.
At IDHEC, he befriends Arnaud Desplechins, with whom, eight years later, he will make La Vie des morts(1991), both men’s first film.
Éric Gautier is now 28 years old and his career of cinematographer is definitely launched with this important, innovative – and highly successful – film.
La Vie des mortsis a medium-length film shot in 11 days with no budget, no star and no advertising – yet it will stay for an entire year in two Paris film theatres and even make Télérama magazine cover..
Meanwhile, Bruno Nuytten, Gautier’s mentor, the man who taught him how to conceive and set up the lights, has become a director. He sees La Vie des mortsand immediately calls Gautier. They meet in a cafe near the Sorbonne and spend the entire afternoon shooting the breeze and drinking beers. Eric Gautier still vividly remembers how stunned he was when Nuytten offered him to design the light pattern of his next film, Albert souffre(« Albert Suffers »). As cinematographer.
Let us flashback for a moment to Planet Cinema in the 1990s.
Cinema celebrates its hundredth birthday and one star shines bigger and brighter than all in the (crew) firmament.
Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten fascinates the younger generation of filmmakers. More than that, he magnetizes them.
Being chosen, at 29, to be cinematographer for one of the greatest cinematographers (turned director) seems beyond inconceivable!
Éric Gautier’s forthcoming career proves not only that Bruno Nuytten made a judicious – and inescapable – choice, but also that, in a way, he was designating his spiritual heir.
At which point, as Gautier just turns 30, it all shifts into the highest gear.
Movie offers flood in. Big budgets. Great directors. Walter Salles, Ang Lee, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechins, Amos Gitai, Patrice Chéreau, Leos Carax, Claude Berri, Agnès Varda, Julian Schnabel, Costa Gavras, Raoul Ruiz, Alain Resnais. A filmography that would definitely fit in a Life Achievement Award ceremony!
Eric Gautier is also a paradoxical and ever-changing man.
Paradoxical ? In 2006, he chooses to do both Sean Penn’s captivating Into the wildand Alain Resnais’ Cœurs(« Private Fears in Public Places »), thus renewing contact with the man whose trainee he was twenty-five years before. Two dissimilar, even opposite directors who yet have one common denominator – make that two : talent, and, more importantly, absolute faith in cinema.
Ever-changing ? When noticing ageing Alain Resnais has considerably slowed down, he decides to slow down his own pace and his crew’s, but instantly shifts back into high gear with Patrice Chéreau, a notoriously energetic man.
“I am a chameleon, I tend to look like and behave like the director”.
His constant desire for change is combined with instinct and often generosity.
“I fill people with enthusiasm. I give myself entirely to help make the film”.
Again, this year, Éric Gautier does a major split between a) the film Amos Gitaï shot over just seven days in the streetcar that runs through Jerusalem from East to West ; and b) Jia Zhang-Ke’s (very long) Ash Is Purest Whitethat he just wrapped in China after a six-month-shoot. “It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve done.”
Ash Is Purest Whitetells the story, over seventeen years, of an impossible love against a backdrop of rivalry between mafias. It takes place over three distinct periods, for which Éric Gautier used three cameras and three sets of lenses. He wanted to shoot the contemporary part with Leica’s Red camera and Leica Summilux-C lenses, which he also sometimes affixed to an Aaton 35mm camera.
“The Leica Summilux-Cs give you a rather contrasting but soft image, flare-sensitive – and the blacks are not too dense. The color rendering is both precise and subtle “.
That « softeness » reminds him of the Leica M6 silver-based still camera and the two Summilux lenses that he bought (second-hand and on credit!) in his teenage years, and which, to this day, accompany him wherever he goes.
A love for photography that links it all to the cinema he practices today.
Éric Gautier sees himself as an “orchestrator” of the talents displayed equally by the director as well as each crew member – just someone who gives color, depth and magic to a film.
A few years ago, Clint Eastwood produced for the BBC a documentary about Thelonius Monk, the famous jazz pianist.
In a shot that lasts mere seconds, we see Monk’s long fingers skillfully navigate the piano keys then suspend their movement and at the last moment move to hit an unexpected key to produce a dissonance.
Eric Gautier simply adores the unexpected.
“That suspended moment when you have absolutely no idea when, or how, the next desire will hit you, nor what it will consist of.”
Written by Ariane Damain Vergallo