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Vierny, Sacha (1919-2001)


Main image of Vierny, Sacha (1919-2001)

Peter Greenaway has frequently cited Alain Resnais' groundbreakingly elliptical Last Year in Marienbad (France/Italy, 1961) as both his favourite film and the strongest cinematic influence on his own work, something easy to divine from its immaculately lit and meticulously composed widescreen tracking shots. Nearly 25 years later, its cinematographer Sacha Vierny would become what Greenaway called 'my most important collaborator', shooting virtually all his film and television productions from A Zed and Two Noughts (1985) to 8½ Women (1999).

Until then, Vierny's career had largely been spent in his native France. Born on 10 August 1919 in Bois-le-Roi, he initially planned to become a vet, before deciding to enrol at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinematographiques in 1945. At that time he had ambitions to direct, but after meeting fellow student Alain Resnais and realising that his interests lay more in image-making, he studied cinematography at the École Nationale de Photographie et de Cinéma.

His first important credit was as a camera assistant on Resnais' Night and Fog (Nuit et Bruillard, France 1955), after which he photographed his final documentary short Le Chant du Styrène (France, 1959). Vierny would then shoot all but two of Resnais' features between his debut Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and L'Amour à mort (France, 1984), as well as films by former Resnais collaborators such as Marguerite Duras and Chris Marker.

His highest-profile pre-Greenaway credit besides Marienbad was Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour (France/Italy, 1967), on which Vierny's cool, limpid lighting formed a calculated contrast to the film's explicit sexual perversions. After 1985, he worked almost exclusively with Greenaway, though towards the end of his life he lit Irène Jouannet's Dormez, je le veux! (1998) and Sally Potter's The Man Who Cried (1999). The latter was Vierny's last film: he died in Paris on 15 May 2001 at the age of 81.

Vierny never used a light meter, and both Resnais and Greenaway marvelled at his astonishing speed. According to Resnais, "we knew each other so well that, when we were on set, he could tell the frame and lens I was going to choose just by the way I looked through the viewfinder and moved up or down. He would start setting up the lights before I even told him what I wanted." Greenaway, who delighted in pushing Vierny's versatility to the limit, quipped, "I'm sure if you gave him a lit candle and two sheets of newspaper he would come up with a solution to any film-lighting problem. He insists on two sheets - one for him to use, and the other for you to read while you wait."

Michael Brooke

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