(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 017 September/October 2023)
By Ron Prince
Set in Paris, director Ira Sach’s latest feature, Passages, considers the torment people can exact on others, whilst they’re far more focussed on fulfilling their own needs and desires.
Tomas (Franz Rogowsji) is a mercurial and techy auteur director, married to reticent artist Martin (Ben Wishaw). During the wrap party for his latest film, entitled ‘Passages’, Tomas meets Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a young and attractive teacher, and later they have sex at her apartment. Martin falls into despair when Tomas tells him about this encounter, and despite a reconciliation that sees uncompromisingly explicit sex, we are left questioning whether Tomas still loves Martin? Or does he see a future with Agathe? Or, is Tomas just a manipulative narcissist, who thinks he can navigate the love triangle to his own benefit?
The film received glowing reviews after its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, including acclaim for the deft cinematography of French-Canadian DP Josée Deshaies. Principle photography on Passages took place at multiple neighbourhoods around Paris, over the course of 23 days, during October and November 2021.
Deshaies is known for her frequent collaborations with filmmaker Betrand Bonello, and has been nominated twice for the prestigious César Award for Best Cinematography on the director’s House Of Tolerance (2011) and Saint Laurent (2014). She also shot Bonnello’s La Bête, which premiered to positive reviews at the 2023 Venice Film Festival.
“I had never worked with Ira before, but was aware of his films, such as Frankie (2019, DP Rui Poças),” says Deshaies who lives and works between Montreal and Paris. “But to my complete surprise, he had a much better idea of the films that I had shot, such as Avant Que J’Oublie (Before I Forget) (2007, dir. Jacques Nolot), which he told me he liked for its ‘fake’ simplicity – it looks very simple to do, but it’s actually very articulated.
“Ira’s script had many subtle layers”
“When we met on Zoom for the first time, I was even more surprised when Ira showed me a file of curated screenshots he had assembled from many of my other films. He had really done his homework about me before calling. We didn’t talk about lighting at that point, we really talked about framing. I think he liked my framing.
“For my part, I thought Ira’s script had many subtle layers – about day-to-day life, about desire, about the choice of whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and the emotional consequences of making those decisions – all of which we can all easily relate to.”
Recalling her conversations with Sachs about the look-and-feel of the film, Deshaies says, “There were two main things we considered, which are both connected. The first was about depicting ‘reality’ versus what you would call ‘naturalism’. French cinema is a lot about naturalism, which for me is not realism. Realism is not so pretty or rounded, it’s more harsh and truthful.
“The second thing is that we were foreigners coming to shoot in Paris. It’s a wonderful city, but we didn’t want to make it into a picture postcard. Our story was set in ‘alt-Paris’, not pretty, but not banal either, just everyday Paris.”
For several weeks before production commenced, Deshaies says she and Sachs began a long process of creating a storyboard for the entire film, with illustrator Gabriel Germain, the brother of production manager Marianne Germain, who helped to translate their conversations into pictorial images.
“The three of us took turns to draw and re-draw scenes from the script, after closely studying a number of films that Ira thought were important to our visual strategy,” she remarks.
“These references included Maurice Pialat’s Graduate First and The Mouth Agape, Jean Eustache’s The Mother And The Whore, Jean Luc Godard’s Passion, Frank Riploh’s Taxi Zum Klo, Pasolini’s Teorema, and, to my further surprise, Jacques Nolot’s Avant Que J’Oublie (Before I Forget), which I had shot!
“I had not really been involved in a process like that before, but it was creative and enjoyable. I translated those storyboarded images into camera placements, and from my diagrams Ira then created a shot list. Working in this way we moved from the abstract to the real, in a nicely-relaxed way, that also included some very good food.
Dehaise adds, “To me cinematography is all about the physics and the quality of the light, the optics you choose and where you put the camera. It’s not intellectual, but based on concrete. As Ira does not rehearse with the actors in advance of the shoot, this process gave me solid ground to feel confident.
“I also learned early-on that Ira does not like to move the camera unless it absolutely needs to, so many scenes would be captured in a single shot, with the camera barely moving. Whilst that might sound simple, it forces you to make strong and decisive choices, which was quite a challenge.”
Deshaies said she would, if she could, have loved to have captured the story, on film but the budget of under $2million would not stetch to that.
“1.66:1 is a golden ratio that has a kind of intangible magic”
“When I am unable to shoot on film, I always shoot on the ARRI Alexa,” she says. “I went with the ARRI Alexa Mini on this production as I needed a camera package that, when you don’t over-accessorise it, is small enough to work with in tight spaces, and I knew we would often be in corners or tight-up against solid walls.
“I know the Alexa Mini very well, it’s my favourite digital camera, mainly because of the lovely images it produces. We shot at 2.8K ARRIRAW, rated at 800ASA, but I had no problem going to 1280 or 1600ASA and the results looked perfectly fine.
“I selected Leitz Summilux-C lenses, as they are fast and compact in size. In terms of the look, they’re not overly precise, like Master Primes can be when paired with a digital sensor, and they’re not warm either, perhaps like Cooke lenses can be.
“The Summilux-Cs are just straight and real, especially the mid-range 40mm and 50mm lengths that Ira and I both liked, because the images are like what you see with your own eyes. Colours and skin tones retain their natural look-and-feel – they are human but without looking too sharp or too flat.”
Deshaies adds Sachs did not want a widescreen experience, nor a boxed-in 4:3 frame, and preferred the more rectangular 1.66:1 format that became dominant in European cinema during the 1970s and ‘80s, and has been used on countless indie features and documentaries ever since.
“1.66:1 is a golden ratio that has a kind of intangible magic for framing two characters really well. It is also very beautiful for mid-shots and allows all sorts of lovely compositions which really suited this production,” she says.
During prep, Deshaies made a small selection of show-LUTs with colourist Yov Moor, who had previously graded Sach’s movie Frankie. She stresses that whilst these LUTs were finessed to optimise the colour of the costumes, set decorations and skin tones, they there were by no means the definitive look of the final movie, rather more a signal of intent.
Of course, the film contains extended and explicit lovemaking scenes. Deshaies says she was not aware of an intimacy co-ordinator being employed on the shoot, but was conscious that the relationship Sachs had with the actors was based on trust and that the performances came with boundaries everyone felt comfortable with.
Deahaies operated the camera, and particularly enjoyed her collaboration with her longtime gaffer, Marianne Lamour, in keeping the lighting real and truthful, rather than naturalistic.
“I have a background in art history, and find naturalism in paintings really quite boring. I much prefer the boldness of expressionism or realism when it comes to lighting” says Deshaies. “LEDs are getting better, but I don’t believe they yet give an adequate quality of light, especially on skin tones. LEDs are expensive too, and I had to bear the budget in-mind.
“So with Marianne’s help I went old-school, and lit Passages with Tungsten fixtures, such as blondes and Fresnels, as well as HMIs, and worked with a lot of bounced light. These traditional lights are big, bulky and not easy to manoeuvre around a location, but I still prefer the results they give.”
Recollecting her experience of shooting Passages, Deshaies remarks, “I loved working with Ira. He created a family atmosphere amongst crew and the cast that focussed our energies together, and you can really see and feel that on the screen.”