Cinematographer. Nationality: French. Born: Bois-le-Roi, 10 August 1919. Education: Attended IDHEC, 1946. Career: 1948—assistant director to André Berthomieu and Louis Daquin; also photographer on several documentaries in the 1950s; 1959—first film as cinematographer, Le Bel-âge; first of several films for Resnais, Hiroshima, mon amour. Awards: Catalonian International Film Festival Award, Best Cinematography, for The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, 1989; Catalonian International Film Festival Award, Best Cinematography, for The Baby of Macon, 1993; Catalonian International Film Festival Award, Best Cinematography, Art Film Festival Award, Best Cinematography, for The Pillow Book, 1996.
Films as Cinematographer (Features):
Le Bel-âge (Kast); Hiroshima, mon amour (Resnais); Natercia (Kast)
L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) (Resnais); La Morte Saison des amours (Kast)
Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour (Resnais)
Aimez-vous les femmes? (Léon)
Belle de jour (Buñuel); The Dance of the Heron (Rademaker); La Guerre est finie (The War Is Over) (Resnais); La Musica (Duras and Seban); De Dans van de Reiger
Caroline chérie (de la Patellière)
Le Tatoué (de la Patellière)
La main (Glaeser)
Bof! (Faraldo); La Nuit des Bulgares (Mitrani); L'Anatomie d'un livreur
Les Granges brûlées (Chapot); Le Moine (Kyroui)
La Sainte Famille (Marchou)
Je suis Pierre Rivière (Lipinska)
Le Diable dans la boíîte (Lary)
Baxter, Vera Baxter (Duras); La Vocation suspendue (Suspended Vocation) (Ruiz); Eclipse sur un ancien chemin vers Compostelle (Férié)
Les Aventures de Holly and Wood (Pansard-Besson); Le Fils puni (Collin); L'Hypothèse du tableau volé (The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting) (Ruiz); La Bravade legendaire
Le Chemin perdu (Moraz)
Mon oncle d'Amerique (My American Uncle) (Resnais)
Letter from Siberia (Marker); Les Trois Couronnes du matelot (The Sailor's Three Crowns) (Ruiz)
L'Avenir d'Emilie (The Future of Emily) (Sanders-Brahms); L'Amour à mort (Love unto Death) (Resnais); Clash (Delpard); La Femme publique (Zulawski); Flugel und Felleln
A Zed and Two Noughts (Greenaway)
The Belly of an Architect (Greenaway)
Drowning By Numbers (Greenaway)
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Greenaway)
Prospero's Books (Greenaway); M Is for Man, Music, Mozart (Greenaway—for TV)
The Baby of Macon (Greenaway)
The Pillow Book (Greenaway)
Dormez, je le veux (Jouannet)
8 1/2 Women (Greenaway)
By VIERNY: articles—
Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1980.
Cinématographe (Paris), July 1981.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1983.
Positif (Paris), April 1986.
On VIERNY: articles—
Cinéma (Paris), no. 91, 1964.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Film Français (Paris), 22 April 1977.
Film Français (Paris), 1 March 1985.
* * *
France in the 1960s became the cradle of innovative cinematography as faster film stocks, lighter cameras, and a directorial community unafraid to bend or occasionally discard forever the old rules, leveled the Hollywood formalism that ruled post-war film. Among the great French lighting cameraman of that generation, Sacha Vierny has cut his own path. Never in sympathy with the shoot-and-see guerilla tactics of Raoul Coutard, unwilling to follow Jean Rabier into his world of gaudy primaries, more adventurous than the formal Henri Decaë, Vierny has worked so closely with directors, notably Alain Resnais and Peter Greenaway, that he is less a technician than their collaborator, replicating famous pre-war relationships between cameraman and director such as that of Boris Kaufmann and Jean Vigo.
Born in 1919, Vierny was in the 1946 class at the Institut des Haute Etudes Cinématographiques. In the 1950s, with French cinema closed to new talent, Vierny, Resnais, and their colleagues made documentaries under the government grant scheme. Vierny first worked for Resnais in 1956 as assistant to Ghislain Cloquet on the concentration camp documentary Nuit et brouillard. The following year he lit Resnais's last short, Le Chant du styrene, a sponsored film about plastics manufacture turned on its head by Vierny's dazzling visuals and a Raymond Queneau commentary written in alexandrines.
Vierny shot Chris Marker's Lettre de Siberie, then Pierre Kast's La Bel-âge, his first feature. Resnais had meanwhile found funding to film Marguerite Duras's script of Hiroshima, mon amour, of which Vierny shot the French sections (the Japanese component is by Mishio Takahashi). Vierny's style is already apparent in this film, with its painterly taste for darkness and texture, wide ranges of contrast between scenes, and considerable courage in working with low light sources. At first viewing, the film seemed to many critics disorganised, lacking formal photographic style, even carelessly underlit. Only later did its unifying intelligence become clear.
The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1959, establishing Resnais's career along with that of Vierny and Duras and launching the Nouvelle Vague. Vierny went on to shoot L'Année dernière à Marienbad in 1961. The photography was no less chancy than on Hiroshima, but Vierny is philosophical about its technical drawbacks. "The fact that there are diffused images, that we sometimes shot on sound stock, that we are not really satisfied, that we think it's a little hasty, a little botched; is that important?" Resnais had showed the cameraman old newspapers and silent films as examples of the effects he was aiming at. "That the whites flared and the blacks were limpid," said Vierny. "That's what Resnais asked of me."
For the next two decades, Vierny shot every Resnais film except Je t'aime je t'aime and Providence, establishing a rapport that Resnais found invaluable. Vierny is so quick, Resnais has commented, that simply the way the director looks through his viewfinder tells Vierny and his operator Philippe Brun which lens and framing he has chosen. Vierny also lit Belle de jour for Buñuel, Baxter, Vera Baxter for Marguerite Duras, and a variety of low-budget films, including The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting and others for Paris-based Chilean Raul Ruiz, which suggest his continuing interest in maverick filmmaking. Many of these, especially the Ruiz productions with their discontinuous narratives and use of colour effects and filters, have been sporadically brilliant, but they lack the intensity of Vierny's best work. He did not enter into another long-term relationship with any director until his films with Peter Greenaway.
Fascinated with painting and anxious to instill some of the same values into his films as he finds in artists like Vermeer, Greenaway is a challenging collaborator for any lighting cameraman, particularly one like Vierny who shares his taste for saturated colours and low light. Their work together on films like Drowning By Numbers and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, most of which are shot at night and involve intricate tracking shots through semidarkness, is rich and distinctive. At the same time, Vierny adapted with relative ease to the baroque extravagance of Greenaway's Prospero's Books, a flamboyant adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which employed the new technology of digital manipulation to render the cinema image as a page of illuminated manuscript in constant and inventive change. Indeed, throughout the 1990s Vierny more than ably served as Greenaway's house cinematographer. (His lone non-Greenaway credit from 1986's A Zed and Two Noughts through the end of the century is Irene Jouannet's Dormez, je le veux.) His images in The Baby of Macon and The Pillow Book are especially resplendent; viewing the latter (the story of a young Japanese woman who develops an appetite for having her body painted) is equal to watching a moving canvas.
Vierny, however, rejects photographic richness for its own sake. "My satisfaction is that the photography is not remarked on too much for itself," he has said. To underline his preference for atmosphere over formal perfection Vierny boasts that he uses neither viewfinder nor light meter. The light meter, he says, is "an instrument that measures essentially the quantities of light, and that doesn't correspond to the feelings I have about my work. What is the use of measuring? The meter will only verify that it's right." Such confidence would be arrogant in any lighting cameraman who had not proved, as Vierny has, his absolute mastery of the art.
—John Baxter, updated by Rob Edelman