In Memoriam         JEAN RABIER

Jean Rabier

Cinemathographer who for many years was Claude Chabrol's "third eye"

There is no cinematographer in the history of cinema who worked so consistently for so long with the same director as Jean Rabier, who has died aged 88. To achieve this record, Rabier worked on more than 40 films with Claude Chabrol, and that was more than three-quarters of his entire output.

Yet he will perhaps be remembered most for the two films he shot for Jacques Demy – Bay of Angels (La Baie des Anges, 1963) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964) – and the two for Demy's wife, Agnès Varda: Cléo from Five to Seven (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1961), and Happiness (Le Bonheur, 1965). Shot very quickly on the French riviera, Bay of Angels, a love story with the roulette wheel as the motif and the motive, is one of the most vivid evocations of gambling fever on film, in large part due to Rabier's luminous black-and-white photography. The dancing camera catches the glitter of the interiors of the luxury casinos and the glare of the sunny beach promenades all on the widescreen. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in contrast, had Rabier's lushly luminous Eastmancolor cinematography combined with the deliciously colour-coordinated set design and costumes, giving the romantic sung-through musical the air of a fauvist painting come to life. In Cléo from Five to Seven, Rabier's camera captures the sheen of Paris, where every trivial incident takes on a new significance for the heroine waiting for a medical verdict on whether she is to live or die. The idyllic colour landscapes in Le Bonheur, drawing their inspiration from impressionist paintings and advertisement-style gloss, complete with fades to red and blue, create an ironic contrast to the story of a man who wishes his wife to accept that he can love her and his mistress equally.

Rabier, who was born in Montfort-L'Amaury, a medieval town west of Paris, started as an industrial artist before joining the film industry as a camera operator in 1948, mainly on short films. He began in features as assistant to Henri Decaë on Crèvecoeur (1955), an Oscar-nominated documentary on the Korean war. Rabier was again camera operator for Decaë on Chabrol's first feature, Le Beau Serge (1958), considered the first film of the nouvelle vague. This was extremely significant, because after Decaë had shot Chabrol's first four films, it was Rabier that the director asked to take over as director of photography in 1961. One of their first collaborations was on The Third Lover (L'Oeil du Malin, 1962), for which Rabier's peeping tom camera is used effectively in a Hitchcockian tale of a journalist insinuating himself into the lives of a seemingly happy couple. Unfortunately, for the next six years Chabrol produced mostly paltry stuff, redeemed only by Rabier's camerawork. The director eventually re-established his reputation with Les Biches (1968), an elegantly enacted bisexual ménage à trois, starring Stéphane Audran, whom Chabrol had married in 1964, Jacqueline Sassard and Jean-Louis Trintignant. As Chabrol matured, so did Rabier. His work for Chabrol, always at the service of the director, was less flashy than his cinematography for Demy and Varda.

Jean Rabier

The team's best films were made between 1968 and 1973, the period of the cycle of films, all variations on the theme of marital infidelity leading to murder, featuring Audran.

In The Unfaithful Wife (La Femme Infidèle, 1969), Rabier captures the soft-focus glitter of bourgeois domestic life where, although passions seethe beneath the surface, the niceties (such as family meals) must be observed. In The Butcher (Le Boucher, 1969), in which a sex murderer (Jean Yanne) courts the small town's schoolmistress (Audran), Rabier's camerawork coolly records her growing despair as she passes out of the bright autumnal streets into the cluttered darkness of her apartment. The film opens with a sweeping pan of the countryside, with the muted colours of early morning before a zoom reveals the butcher's desire for the teacher.

Much of Rabier's mastery of colour in Chabrol's films was achieved not only by laboratory-processed colour but also by natural light. There is also a great mobility of Rabier's camera using a wide variety of angles and perspectives, especially effective for Chabrol's probing and ironic black comedies.

The inevitable parting of the ways for Chabrol and Rabier came after Madame Bovary in 1991, when the cinematographer retired, aged 64. Inevitably, Chabrol's subsequent oeuvre lacked the stylistic unity it had with his collaborator of nearly half a century, when Rabier's camera had been Chabrol's "third eye".

Jean Rabier is survived by his sons, Jean-Yves and Jean-Marc, and a daughter, Jeannine.

• Jean Rabier, cinematographer; born 21 April 1927; died 15 February 2016

Ronald BERGAN
first published in:
www.theguardian.com/film/2016/mar/08/jean-rabier-obituary

 

 

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