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Claire Mathon AFC • Saint Omer

Mar 8, 2024

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 016)

COURT ON CAMERA

By Ron Prince

Saint Omer, the first narrative feature from documentary-maker Alice Diop, is a profoundly-affecting, cinematically-inventive and ultimately spellbinding courtroom procedural about Laurence, a French-Senegalese mother on-trial for infanticide. 

Laurence stands accused of leaving her helpless child to drown on a beach near Calais, and readily admits her guilt. Rama, an author and university professor, witnesses the court proceedings, hoping it will help her with a novel she is planning. The film is based on the real-life 2016 French case, which Diop attended as an observer, of Fabienne Kabou, who was convicted of the same crime. 

Shot by French cinematographer Claire Mathon AFC – whose visually-distinctive credits include Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019), Atlantique (2019), Spencer (2021) and Petite Maman (2021) – Saint Omer has been noted for the way in which the camera both moves and lingers, and how faces stand-out, to relate the story and heighten the intensity in what might otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill drama in a mundane, wood-panelled, provincial courtroom. 

Examining the mystery of motives, as well as themes around cultural, familial and racial intolerance, the film won the Silver Lion Grand Jury prize at the 2022 Venice Film festival.

When did you first meet Alice Diop?

I first met Alice for Saint Omer almost two years before we actually shot the film. I was familiar with her work, in particular La Mort De Danton (2011, DP Blaise Harrison). Alice’s ideas, her vision and desire to recreate the trial she had attended, giving it an almost mythological dimension, made me want to make this film. I liked the importance given to the spoken word in the screenplay, which, for me, posed real questions about representation, and was I interested in her documentary-style approach towards the fiction.

What were your first discussions with Alice about the look for the film?

Alice wanted to put faces in the light, portraits with a pictorial dimension. Very early on she showed me paintings and portraits that stayed in my mind throughout production on the film. One of the paintings, La Belle Ferronnière by Leonardo da Vinci, which I was lucky-enough to see at the Louvre Museum, became a framing reference.

I also looked at black models painted by Cézanne, and studied how artists treated dark skins against backgrounds in paintings like Aïcha by Felix Vallotton and Grape Wine by Andrew Wyeth. The way in which the face of the Cape Verdean heroine stands-out from the dark, whilst sublimating her too, in Pedro Costa’s film Vitalina Varela (2019), was a strong touchstone for Alice.

“We wanted to put the faces in the light”

Alice also wanted a heightened reality, to discretely concentrate on the presence of the actresses, to give complexity to their characters, to connect the stories of Laurence and Rama and highlight the tragedy that comes when we reveal something of ourselves. We reviewed The Trial Of Joan Of Arc (1962, DP Léonce-Henri Burel) by Robert Bresson for its work on repetition and a certain purity.

And, amongst all these references and conversations, we also considered the colour palette of the film – ochre, wood, brown, rust, bronze – especially with the costume designer Annie Melza Tiburce.

Tell us about the locations?

Meeting remotely during the Covid period, Alice and I discussed the decor, the space and lighting of the courtroom, and questioned whether we should shoot in the same place where the real-world trial had taken place, or recreate it elsewhere.

We considered the historic courtrooms on the Île de la Cité, in Paris – which have now moved to modern premises – for their splendour and for what they tell about the institution of the French Republic. You can see them in Raymond Depardon’s film The 10th District Court: Moments Of Trials (2004).

But, two months before the shoot, we went to the wood-panelled court in Saint Omer, where the case took place, and were convinced it was right this film. That day we spotted another room in the courthouse, much smaller, brighter, but with white walls that could be easily transformed into the actual court. Wooden panels seemed to us to be a crucial element for the film and this smaller space could help us bring the protagonists closer together, both physically and emotionally, especially when the glass box, that separates the accused, was removed.

Did you do much testing of different cameras and lenses?

I long-questioned the feeling of the light that the film needed, and spent time looking for the right tools, feeling that there was a balance to be found between the rhythm of the capture and a strong pictorial desire, while keeping the feeling of a documentary.

I did a short comparison test between Red Monstro with Primo lenses and Red Gemini with Leitz M 0.8 lenses, but this was more to confirm my intuition about the texture, definition and rendering of Laurence and Rama’s skins. These tests allowed me to really specify the colour palette and the contrast of the overall look.

What aspect ratio, cameras and lenses did you choose?

We went 1.85:1, for the simplicity of the relationship between a character framed in medium close-up and the background. I shot with a Red Gemini, full frame at 5K, and Leitz M 0.8 lenses, using the 50mm a lot, with a Schneider HD Classic Soft 1/16 filter. The camera package came from Panavision.

Did you create any LUTs (Look-Up-Tables) for the film?

I worked on LUTs with colourist Yov Moor, but for planning reasons I was not able to do the final colour with him. I remember the difficulty of not losing details in extreme highlights, while keeping a bright image. And I did not want the assertion of our colour palette to deplete other colours. for example, I found that the greens often suffered in our attempts to accentuate the wooden and brown values ​​in the image.

What was your approach to moving the camera for storytelling purposes?

It was a single camera shoot, and I operated. You might imagine that two cameras would have been the appropriate configuration to cover the trial scenes, but the shots we wanted, the axes and compositions, were very deliberate choices that we determined upstream from the script. It was not a question of capturing everything, on the contrary it was about making choices. One of our desires was to hold long static shots and that any movements were imperceptible.

We also did long tracking shots to accompany Rama – for example, from her hotel to the courthouse – which were done in a single movement, but without us feeling the camera.

And what was your approach to the lighting?

I had a very small inventory of LED lights, provided by Panalux – ARRI Skypanels, LightStar Luxed-9s, LiteGear Litemat Plus 3s, Astera tubes and ROSCO DMG SL1s.

We wanted to put the faces in the light, so I tried to channel as much light as possible into the courtroom, whilst adjusting for the relationship between the face and the background. One idea was to make the decor disappear a little as we went along, to abstract it and to focus on the portraiture and thereby find these painted figures. So I basically directed the light, cutting it and diffusing it for the very precise light we were seeking.

But, I also wanted to keep the light alive during the takes, which were often very long. So I decided to work mostly with natural light indoors during the day, accepting and working with natural swings in the light outside. I liked the idea of ​​dealing with the vagaries of cloudy periods and the way light evolves and varies during the day.

“The axes and compositions of the shots were very deliberate choices”

With my hand on the diaphragm ring, I remained attentive and alive, capturing the scenes, the tension, the emotion, as if something unexpected was going to happen with each take.

For the night scenes, I looked for a warm, golden light that stayed in our wood, bronze and brown palette. This heat had to be able to come from the lights of the city, the lights of the bulbs. I didn’t want it to be particularly realistic, I didn’t want it to be red or green or acidic, but was looking for more warmth in Rama’s skin.

Tell us about your crew?

I wanted to offer this film to a relatively young camera, grip and lighting team, and looked for sensitive people who would know how to live with the project as a whole and sometimes enjoy doing very little.

My first AC was Sarah Dubien, with Noémie Commissaire working as second AC, and François Diard the key grip. The gaffer was Benoît Bouthors. I had already worked with them on short projects and I was very happy with these collaborations. They supported the technical and creative choices on this film with intelligence.

Alice Diop – Co-writer Director

I completed the final grade with colourist Mathilde Delacroix at M141 in Paris. We mainly worked on preserving the life and specificity of each skin tone maintaining visual unity throughout the film.

What were the biggest challenges on this film for you?

To relive the intimate experience that Alice had during the original trial, to keep the complexity of her vision, to translate her sensitivity to the framing and lighting, and to give value to all of this humanity in the story. It’s a film that gave me great freedom, which really engaged my gaze.

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