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Cinematographer Manuel Claro Talks the Bearable Lightness of 'Nymphomaniac'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood April 3, 2014 at 3:28PM

Cinematographer Manuel Claro calls "Nymphomaniac" the ultimate Lars von Trier movie ("Volume II" opens Friday), containing "a fuck you to film school energy that's all over the place," in which the director's pessimism and optimism battle one another. However, after the in-your-face look of"Melancholia," the opus about sex addiction starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard was much simpler to light, despite the greater length and traipsing 55 days through Germany and Belgium.
Charlotte Gainsbourg in volume 2 of 'Nymphomaniac'
Charlotte Gainsbourg in volume 2 of 'Nymphomaniac'

Claro shot digitally with the Arri Alexa Plus with a lot of zoom lenses yet applying a Tiffen 1/8 Pro-Mist (white) filter to remove the digital look. He longs for the organic quality of film but is adapting the best he can, given the cultural and business shift to digital. 

"Digital is getting so hyper-real that you see too much like skin details," he laments. "Everything is too perfect and it's not really pleasing to look at. For me, I usually fight sharpness. One of the problems in the camera industry is that engineers are going for the higher numbers. We are at the point where it's going in the wrong direction. You can always degrade it, you can always put a filter in front of it, but, as a DP, you really want a camera that gives you its own kind of poetic quality and then you can go from there instead of having to make everything afterwards in post-production. And I think mentally there's a huge difference in the creative process when you're right in front of the actors on the set and then afterwards when you're sitting in a dark room with a technician manipulating the images."

Charlotte Gainsbourg in 'Nymphomaniac'
Charlotte Gainsbourg in 'Nymphomaniac'

Indeed, it was all about accommodating the performances. Claro made a headline for each chapter and the first one is warm and soft, indicative of a young girl's sense of adventure and optimism as her sexual journey begins. This is contrasted by the cold blue that starts off "Volume II."

But the framing devise in Skarsgard's apartment proved the most challenging. "Lars had a strong idea of the framing of the room and the alley. He wanted it to have a theatrical feel, unreal or staged initially. So he was very specific about the production design and how it should be defined as a kind of monk's cell. It's very simple and we lit it with some practical lights on the wall and a small light. I adjusted the lights for each shot and I tried to keep the atmosphere of this room intact. 

"Originally, we had a lot of ideas of the cameras to move around much more and have their own life, but it was so dense and there was so much information that we went for the simplest approach. You want to focus on them and the amount of material that they had to go through was incredible and we shot the whole room in five days, and I think the two movies together is like an hour-and-a-half of screen time just in that room. It was like shooting a play within a movie. You wanted to give the actors the best conditions to work with. It was probably the hardest to stage and light because it was so heavy. It's like the two sides to Lars. He comes out with whatever he has on his mind...

"I'm very proud of this movie, not for my own work, but somehow the dramaturgy is more like literature. What Lars calls digression. Within cinema it's a rare thing to see today."

"Nymphomaniac" might be considered von Trier's "Eyes Wide Shut" in analyzing sex without passion and passion without sex (he too uses Dmitri Shostakovich's "Waltz 2 From Jazz Suite"). Only time will tell if it resonates anything like the late Kubrick's final masterpiece.

This article is related to: Nymphomaniac, Lars von Trier, Cinematography, Immersed In Movies

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.