Pierre Lhomme, Legendary French Cinematographer, Dies at 89

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Pierre Lhomme

He was behind the look of films like Jean-Pierre Melville's 'Army of Shadows' and Jean Eustache's 'The Mother and the Whore.'

Pierre Lhomme, the French cinematographer behind such films as Army of Shadows, The Mother and the Whore, Camille Claudel and Cyrano de Bergerac, has died. He was 89.

Lhomme died July 4 in Arles, France, the French Society of Cinematographers told The Hollywood Reporter.

Lhomme received a César award in 1989 for his work on Camille Claudel, which was directed by former cameraman Bruno Nuytten. He received a second César in 1991 for Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac, which also won a technical prize at Cannes.

Among his 60-odd credits are films by Chris Marker (Le Joli Mai, which Lhomme co-directed, and A bientôt, j’espère), Robert Bresson (Four Nights of a Dreamer), Marguerite Duras (Les Mains Négatives, Le Navire Night), Claude Miller (This Sweet Sickness, Deadly Circuit) and Alain Cavalier (Le combat dans l’île, Pillaged).

Lhomme also shot several Merchant-Ivory features, including the James Ivory-directed Quartet, Maurice, Jefferson in Paris and Le Divorce, and Ismail Merchant’s Cotton Mary. His last feature credit was on Le Divorce, which he lensed in 2003.

Born in Boulogne-Billancourt on April 5, 1930, Lhomme studied briefly in the U.S. before trying to make it as a jazz musician in Paris in the late 1940s and early '50s. He was then accepted into the prestigious École nationale supérieure Louis-Lumière, a highly technical film school whose alumni includes fellow cinematographers Henri Decaë (The 400 Blows), William Lubtchansky (Shoah) and Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It, Big Fish) and directors like Gaspar Noé and Jean-Jacques Annaud.

Lhomme graduated from Louis-Lumière in 1953 and began working as an assistant cameraman and camera operator on films like Philippe de Broca’s The Love Game and Jean Becker’s Man Called Rocca. He also befriended several directors of the budding French New Wave, working as an operator on Eric Rohmer’s first feature, The Sign of the Lion, and co-directing Marker’s 1962 Paris-set documentary, Le Joli Mai.

His first feature credit as a cinematographer was on Robert Darène’s 1958 pirate adventure The Amorous Corporal, for which he was co-credited with Marcel Weiss.

Lhomme went on to shoot dozens of features from the 1960s up to the late 1990s. One of his most memorable early collaborations was on Jean Eustache’s sprawling 220-minute drama The Mother and the Whore, which he shot in high-contrast 16mm black-and-white.

Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Bernadette Lafont and Françoise Lebrun, the film was made on a tiny budget and became a minor sensation in France during the post-May '68 years. Lhomme worked again with Eustache on the hybrid fiction-documentary A Dirty Story, starring Michael Lonsdale and Jean-Noël Picq and released theatrically in 1977.

Lhomme’s most renowned work was on Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 French Resistance epic Army of Shadows, starring Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret. Shot in monochrome color tones that channeled the somber, stifling atmosphere of Vichy France during the World War II, the film was a hit at home but wasn’t released in the U.S. until 2006, where it grossed more than $700,000 in theaters and was widely hailed as a masterpiece.

“It was only after Army of Shadows that I felt like a real cinematographer,” Lhomme told the French-Canadian newspaper Le Devoir in 2007. “Melville asked me to do things I’d never tried before. I remember when I messed up a shot that came out so dark, you couldn’t see anything. Melville said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll put some nice music there.’”

Along with his César awards, Lhomme received a Prix Premio Gianni di Venanzo, named after the Italian cinematographer of , in 2005, and a lifetime achievement prize at the Camerimage festival in Poland in 2008. He was also crowned an Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters and a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in France.

During a 12-hour interview that Lhomme gave with students at the French film school La Fémis in 2014, he summed up his approach to cinematography this way: “I never had a fixed or preconceived idea about cinema … One of the main skills of a good cameraman is to be able to pass from one director to another and adapt to their different worlds. What I loved above all else was working with talented people.”

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.