A regular collaborator of Léa Mysius (he is responsible for the images of Ava and Les Cinq Diables, films for which he is also a co-writer) and director of photography for Jacques Audiard’s black and white urban film Olympiades, Paul Guilhaume is one of the most promising cinematographers of his generation. With Casa Susanna, broadcast on June 14 on Arte, he also collaborates for the fourth time on a documentary with Sébastien Lifshitz.
Paul Guilhaume met Sébastien Lifshitz for the filming of Vies de Thérèse, a portrait, filmed in the last days of her life, of the LGBTQ+ feminist activist Thérèse Clerc. He then filmed with the documentary filmmaker over five years the lives of two teenagers, Emma and Anaïs, for Adolescentes (alternating with Antoine Parouty), and followed, with the filmmaker, the daily life of Sasha for a year, a young transgender child, in the very touching Petite Fille. For these intimate and naturalistic portraits, as close as possible to the individuals filmed, Paul Guilhaume joined a very tight team. On Adolescentes, there were only three of them most of the time: one person for the image, another for the sound, and the filmmaker.
A reduced team, and very long shooting times – some scenes of a few minutes of film are taken from dozens of hours of rushes – which allows the camera-person to be forgotten behind their camera. And then, it’s a matter of finding the right balance – being far enough away, so as not to be intrusive and disturb the naturalness, and close enough to be able to bring the spectator into the confidence. Finally, you have to know how to adapt the framing and the way of filming to the director’s desires for the immediate scene, in the face of a reality that cannot be repeated or remade. “In a classroom scene, I had instinctively framed from the shoulder, with movements… I understood, in the face of Sebastien [Lifshitz, ed.], that I was not quite in the tone of what he wanted,” said the cinematographer to the French Association of Directors of Photography (AFC) in 2020.
One might think that the work of a director of photography is more anecdotal in a documentary than in a fiction. Ava, Les Cinq Diables, and Olympiades are very visual films, for which one immediately thinks of the image. But, beyond the difficulties inherent in confronting reality, Sébastien Lifshitz’s films always propose a very fine work on the image. In Petite Fille, Sasha is always filmed with a great gentleness that immediately puts us in empathy with her desire for identity and the violence of a world that judges her. In Adolescentes, the recurrent use of field/counter-field accentuates the emerging opposition between two friends that social fate will separate.
With Casa Susanna, Paul Guilhaume no longer films young girls but elderly ladies, Diane and Kate.
At 80 years old, the two Americans remember the 1950s and 1960s, when they were men and were part of a clandestine network of transvestites, hidden in a small wooden house in the mountains of New York State, the Casa Susanna. For this fourth collaboration with Sébastien Lifshitz, Paul Guilhaume is faced with another challenge, that of creating a visual coherence between the images shot for the film and the many colorful archives of mid-20th-century America. A documentary that promises to be beautiful, rich, and exciting.