Claire Mathon’s Counter-Culture of New Romance Through Visual Imagery

French cinematographer Claire Mathon was the visual mastermind behind two of the most incredibly shot films of 2019. Mati Diop’s Atlantics and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (referred to as Portrait from here on) were crafted with careful thoughtfulness for their specific worlds, and what makes them so ethereal is the emotional journey of intimacy and desire that is presented on screen. Atlantics is a coming-of-age story set along the oceanside of Senegal, and Portrait is an 18th-century lesbian romance about a bride-to-be and visiting painter falling in love, set around an oceanfront castle in France. Both of these films are set in different periods and the techniques that Mathon utilises to create these worlds are an exploration in naturalism transcending into poetry, with the collaboration of the directors.

Mathon’s cinematography has won numerous awards for her work in Atlantics and Portrait. She received top prizes at the National Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle and the Boston Film Critics Association. In 2019, she received the César Award (which is the French equivalent of the Academy Awards) for Best Cinematography for Portrait. Despite all the achievement and recognition that she received, there is still a problem with recognizing female cinematographers in Hollywood. In 2018, Rachel Morrison became the first female cinematographer to be nominated for Mudbound (2017) at the Academy Awards. There have been many notable female cinematographers who should have received the recognition earlier, but the industry’s sexism and failure to recognise women’s work made it impossible for them to do so until a few years ago. Mathon goes beyond to prove that she has what it takes to create an excellent body of work regardless of the sexism in the industry. She takes on projects that the Academy would seem uninterested in, such as African cinema, Queer stories and non-English speaking films. 

Image is from the film Atlantics. Ada looks directly at the camera.
Image courtesy of Netflix

In Atlantics, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is a young woman from a strict Muslim family and is arranged to be married to one of the wealthiest bachelors in Dakar. She does not wish to marry him and sneaks around with her boyfriend Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore), a construction worker who is not being paid for his work by his crooked boss. Souleiman and co-workers decide to migrate to Europe on a boat to find a better life for themselves. He secretly sets off at night without saying goodbye to Ada. After that, Ada and her friends experience supernatural phenomena that occur at night in Dakar. One of the girls succumbs to a fever and starts to sleepwalk, and a rookie cop, Issa (Amadou Mbow), suffers from fainting spells. This is a film that experiments with different genres and explores many realist themes like poverty, exploitation, inequality, migration and the social and economic issues of Dakar.

To create this mysterious world of Atlantics, Mathon cites her experience in shooting documentaries as helping her find the right balance to be precise in locations, camera and lighting. She used two cameras to shoot the night and day scenes to capture Dakar’s characteristics. In daylight, the images were captured in a documentary style that drenches the locations in sunlight. When Dakar is plunged into darkness, it is completely different. At the nightclub, Issa and Ada are dancing, their bodies painted under the neon lights, Mathon manages to create a dreamy and erotic scene of the dancing lovers. It is spellbinding to watch the night scenes under a moonlight landscape. Diop and Mathon believed in shooting the film in natural light. Their shared idea captures realism by defining the colours of the sunset and shooting images that were already present such as, in particular, the nightlife of Dakar. The moonlit scenes and the humidity of the oceans were some of the elements that they experimented with before shooting the actual film. 

Image from the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Héloïse caresses Marianne's chin.
Image courtesy of Pyramide Films

For Portrait, Mathon used a different set of techniques as it is mostly set on a little island in Brittany. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned by The Countess (Valeria Golina) to create a wedding portrait of her daughter, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), but Héloïse refuses to pose as the subject so it must be completed in secret. From then on, Marianne acts as a companion and secretly observes Héloïse’s features by day and paints her at night. But soon enough, Héloïse finds out about Marianne’s purpose of her stay in the castle, and they begin a forbidden relationship. The audience is introduced to Héloïse’s features bit by bit, just as Marianne observes them. We become submerged into this film as Marriane and Héloïse observe each other through movement and gaze. What makes Portrait stand out compared to Mathon’s previous project is how differently it captures imagery and the female gaze. 

Sciamma and Mathon observed the art and mechanics of painting a portrait. They analysed how the light captures the skin and how the painting reflects on the subject from different angles, and how to bring life to a painting, which is also a question that is asked in the movie. These critical debates were discussed to understand the cinematic world of Portrait. Just like a painting, Mathon creates texture within the frames. She goes beyond natural light and expresses intimacy and desire using light as the emotional node in the scenes. Whenever Marianne and Héloïse are on screen, it is clear that Mathon is focused on capturing the two characters within the light in any way possible. Whether it is in natural light or candles, Mathon wants to show that their beauty cannot be restrained. 

Image is from Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Héloïse face is covered with a scarf, only her eyes are visible.
Image courtesy of Pyramide Films

Mathon creates stunning visual imagery through the power of the gaze, desire and mystery. The collaboration between cinematographer and director works because they can understand each other’s vision. By discovering common ground in their visual language and curiosity, Mathon masterfully crafts Atlantics and Portraits, despite the fact they are aesthetically the opposites of each other. Through Diop’s eyes, Mathon creates an ambitious film that explores many genres and aesthetics in a way that compliments her love for naturalism. The characters desires are captured with such rawness and it is visually astonishing. Sciamma’s Portrait is another example of raw intimacy and desire that is captured on camera. Mathon figures out how to use light as an emotional node and texture to paint a scene of moving pictures by observing the two characters. Mathon is capable of transforming a refreshing counter-culture of new love stories through visual language and the gaze of the subjects in her projects. 

Header image courtesy of Netflix