Jean-Yves Escoffier

Cinematographer who captured the atmosphere of the night

Saturday 19 April 2003 00:00
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Jean-Yves Escoffier, cinematographer: born Lyon, France 12 July 1950; died Los Angeles 1 April 2003.

The extended documentary sequence that opens Leos Carax's 1991 film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf says much about the life and talent of the man who lit it, the cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier.

It shows the nightly trawl of Paris's homeless, who are picked up by the social services, washed, patched up, fed and, if they wish it, re-deposited on the streets at dawn. The unflinching honesty and compassion were worthy of Caravaggio, as was the technique, in which blue-white flesh emerged from a treacly dark, and concrete bunkers gaped like the doors of hell.

Born in Lyon, Escoffier knew, by the age of seven, that he wanted to be a cameraman. He studied at L'Ecole Louis Lumière, and worked as a camera assistant on features including Denys de La Patellière's 1972 Le Tueur which featured both the legendary Jean Gabin and a young Gérard Depardieu.

Given this experience, Escoffier should have fallen for big-time movies. Instead, he was always most comfortable with outcasts and renegades. His directors would include numerous hard cases – Leos Carax, Gus Van Sant, Neil LaBute, Harmony Korine – while the films he shot for them – Mauvais Sang (1986), Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Nurse Betty (2000), Cradle Will Rock (1999), Good Will Hunting (1997), Rounders (1998) – depict unattractive individuals in the most unsparing light.

Escoffier learned his trade in short films. He worked his way up to documentaries like Jean-François Stévenin's Passe-Montagne (Mountain Pass, 1978) and his first feature, Marie-Claude Treihou's Simone Barbès, ou la vertu (Simone Barbès or Virtue, 1980).

With pallid, bruised flesh tones, and bilious interiors that made the characters appear ill at ease, Escoffier quickly earned a reputation as a specialist in the atmosphere of the night. "I like dark walls", Escoffier explained, "because film is about people. Each time you have a bright wall, the wall is stronger than the character. I like the reverse situation. I like to go as close to natural as possible – to design the tension, the darkness and the brightness, the way life would give it to you."

It seemed a brilliant idea, when the city of Paris closed the Pont-Neuf for a year for restoration in 1988, to shoot a film on the historic bridge. Carax cooked up a scenario for his mistress, the actress Juliette Binoche, and his long-time friend Denis Lavant as street entertainers eking out a living amid the tumbled masonry. He asked Escoffier to capture Paris's underbelly on film – something for which he'd shown a flair with Carax's previous Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Mauvais Sang.

But injuries and confusion delayed shooting so that, when Carax was ready, the bridge had already re-opened. The production moved to Montpelier, where the Pont Neuf was rebuilt on a lake, along with the entire Seine-side frontage. Carax insisted on showing his hero and heroine water-skiing on the Seine through Paris's traditional New Year's Eve fireworks, but this too had to be recreated in the sunnier south.

By the time the film was ready for release in 1991, Escoffier had had enough both of Carax and the French film industry. He was already in demand to shoot commercials, and his reputation was further enchanced by the award of a César – the French cinema's Oscar – for his uncharacteristically cheerful lighting of Coline Serreau's 3 Hommes et un Couffin (Three Men and a Cradle). This 1985 comedy about three bachelors forced to mind a baby not only succeeded on the US art-house circuit but spawned two Hollywood re-makes. On its coat-tails, and with the help of a European Film Award for Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Escoffier launched a busy American career.

Hollywood sought him out for films that required a subdued palette and a jaundiced eye. He evoked Depression-era New York for Cradle Will Rock (1999), Tim Robbins's film about Marc Blitzstein's opera of oppression, prostitution and class war. For Nurse Betty (2000), a cynical film by the playwright Neil LaBute, he walked a tightrope between the tormented home life of Renée Zellweger and the fantasy world of the TV soap into which she escapes.

Escoffier subsequently (and less successfully) shot LaBute's adaptation of A.S. Byatt's literary fable Possession (2002), and, more to his taste, did two sequels to Alex Proyas's The Crow. When he died, he had just completed Robert Benton's version of Philip Roth's The Human Stain with Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins, and was working with Wong Kar Wei on the troubled and long-delayed 2046.

His bruised colours and shadowy interiors are at their best in John Dahl's 1998 Rounders, set in the all-night poker clubs of Manhattan. "I love to do the city by night," Escoffier remarked during that production. "It is like a painting."

John Baxter

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