Pierre Guffroy: Oscar-winning set designer who worked with Godard, Truffaut and Polanski

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The Independent Online

Oscar-winning art designer Pierre Guffroy worked with many of Europe's best-known directors. Equally suited to Bresson's austerity, Buñuel's surrealism and Polanski's absurdism, his designs also helped define some of the best-known films by directors including Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Marcel Camus.

Guffroy studied sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and in 1947 enrolled at the School of Decorative Arts. Deciding to work in the cinema industry, he attended classes at the Institute for Advanced Film Studies from 1951 to 1953.

In 1958 he assisted Rino Modellini and Jean Mandaroux on Louis Malle's noir-ish Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur pour l'Echafaud). The following year he got his first solo credit with Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro), Marcel Camus' Brazilian-set updating of the Greek myth. A contrast came with the ascetic Jansenist director Robert Bresson. On the stripped-down Pickpocket and The Trial of Joan of Arc (Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc, 1962) Guffroy assisted Pierre Charbonnier. He then designed Mouchette (1967) and Bresson's final masterpiece, L'argent (1983), on his own.

Guffroy liked to develop long-running relationships with directors. "I'm picky and only work with people who interest me," he said. However, Le Testament d'Orphée (1960) was his only film with Jean Cocteau, though it introduced Guffroy to Truffaut, another one-time collaborator on The Bride Wore Black (La Mariée Etait en Noir, 1968).

In 1965 Godard made Alphaville, and Guffroy, whilst spending almost nothing, helped him turn contemporary Paris into something more disturbing. However, for whatever reason, Guffroy went uncredited, as he would the same year on Godard's Pierrot le Fou.

By contrast, in 1966 he picked up an Oscar nomination for René Clément's wartime drama Is Paris Burning? (Paris Brûle-t-il?). They went on to work together on two more films, both thrillers, the violent Rider on the Rain (Le Passage de la Pluie, 1970), followed by ...And Hope to Die (La Course du Lièvre à Travers les Champs, 1972).

Roman Polanski lived in France for many years, but the first feature for which he got French funding was The Tenant (Le Locataire, 1976). Guffroy's designs underline the oppressive, paranoid atmosphere, undercut by the script's black humour. Having built the apartment set, he then made a distorted version for the hero's hallucinations. Guffroy designed four more films for Polanski. He won an Oscar for the Hardy adaptation Tess (1979), turning north-west France into Wessex – complete with Stonehenge. Pirates (1986) a lavish production featuring a full-sized galleon, won Guffroy a César, and in 1988 he added both gloom and chrome-plating to the Paris-set thriller Frantic. Their last work together was an adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's claustrophobic chamber piece Death and the Maiden (1994).

Guffroy also designed four of the last five films by the great surrealist Luis Buñuel. Born in 1900, the director was already 69 when he made The Milky Way (La Voie Lactée), a series of heretical scenes witnessed by two tramps. After questioning Christianity, Buñuel turned his fire on the middle classes with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie, 1972). Essentially a series of dinner-party scenes, Guffroy's designs played an important role in defining the characters. Even more freeform is The Phantom of Liberty (Le Fantôme de la Liberté, 1974), which relies on Guffroy's designs to maintain its surreal atmosphere. That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet Obscure Objet du Désir, 1977) is more conventionally structured, with its flashbacks explaining why a man pours a bucket of water over a woman, with Guffroy's designs helping differentiate periods and places.

The subtle evocation of period was one of Guffroy's strengths and he picked up Césars for two 18th-century stories; Tavernier's Let Joy Reign Supreme (Que la Fête Commence..., 1975) and Miloš Forman's Valmont, 1989), an adaptation of Laclos overshadowed by the previous year's Dangerous Liaisons.

In 1988 Philip Kaufman made The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but the Prague Spring setting meant that they were refused permission to film, not only in Czechoslovakia, but anywhere behind the iron curtain. The production moved to France and Switzerland, and Guffroy built an uncanny model of the Prague skyline, to appear through apartment windows. To this he added fastidiously detailed sets, such as the peeling, steam-soaked wallpaper in a shabby spa. The re-dressed streets of Lyon stood in for Prague and the images also had to match archive footage, including Jan Nìmec's famous film of the invasion.

Whilst using his designs to help define characters, Guffroy liked his work to be as invisible as possible. As he put it, "Le meilleur décor est celui qu'on ne voit pas." ("The best scene is not seen.")

In 1992 he was the subject of a documentary, Behind the Scenes: a Portrait of Pierre Guffroy, while another one, Pierre Guffroy, Chef Décorateur et Poète has just been completed.

John Riley

Pierre-Jacques Guffroy, production designer: born Paris 22 April 1926; died Chalon-sur-Saône 27 September 2010.