When French portrait photographer Brigitte Lacombe takes a picture, she does so with a tremendous crank of the lever on her analogue camera and a resounding click of its shutter. It’s a deliberate, tactile undertaking — excessive and inconvenient given the availability of digital tech today. In a 30-minute documentary short, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay captures this laborious process, turning the camera back onto Lacombe as she shoots a rotating cast of models on a dramatic warehouse set. It’s a touching, gentle meeting of kindred spirits, of two creators captivated by granular details and physical experiences, directing their gazes with intention and care.
Lacombe is “curious about everything,” according to her sister, documentarian Marian Lacombe, who Ramsay interviews. This is plain to see as Lacombe’s process unfolds onscreen. She is a playful and engaged presence, gently advising models on posture and positioning, but still finding time for moments of personal connection. She is delighted to discover one of her male models is “very Scottish” in one appealing vignette, and her immense affection for the uniqueness of each subject is apparent in the intimate honesty of the finished photographs that flash up onscreen.
Ramsay is a similarly curious soul, fascinated with how people come into contact with the world around them. Her approach has been related to Laura Marks’ theory of a “haptic visuality,” the attempt to communicate physical sensations like touch, smell and taste through a visual medium. It’s often at odds with the requirements of narrative cinema, but Ramsay has often used vivid, subjective depictions of specific sensations to support plot progression or character development — say, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe auto-asphyxiating with a plastic bag in You Were Never Really Here (2017) or the titular protagonist of Morvern Callar (2002) languishing in a freezing cold bath. No conflict between sensation and narrative is present in Brigitte, however, as Ramsay indulges a freeform approach to the construction of the short that traces faint lines between ideas rather than progressing in a rigid, preordained direction.
A prolific artist with a portfolio stretching back decades, Lacombe is certainly storied, and this depth of experience is baked into the fragments of conversation between herself and Ramsay that are presented in voiceover. The two discuss notions of looking, of human relationships, of artistic discipline. It’s a freewheeling exchange that avoids much in the way of specifics about Lacombe’s life, though she briefly discusses her initial exodus to New York in the 70s, accompanied by some wonderful images from her private archive. Instead, it builds up a more holistic idea of Lacombe as a person and a creative. This makes for something of a visual portrait, capturing the photographer in much the way she captures her own subjects. The ideas that she shares in interviews are deeply intimate, even when shorn of salacious detail, and Ramsay composes this vocal soundtrack over her film almost like a musical score. It speaks to the connectivity Lacombe shares with her collaborators, just as humans usually strive to connect with each other.
Brigitte is shot in crisp monochrome, which amplifies the viewer’s focus and dials out excess visual noise. It’s like Lacombe’s own self-described “uniform” of all-black clothing which allows her to move around a set innocuously — never invisible, but never jostling for space with the figures she is looking to understand and capture in an image. It feels, therefore, like a special thing to be seeing behind the curtain of this process. It also coaxes Ramsay out from behind her own camera, and the director is often captured interacting with Lacombe or other workers on the set as they go about their work. This act blurs the line between the process of making Brigitte and the final product of the documentary itself, but it’s certainly in service of the film’s fluid and playful nature — unmarried to specific intention and more to sensory appreciation of the moment at hand.
Both Lacombe and Ramsay are preoccupied with human relations, and their conversations frequently circle back to sisterhood — either Lacombe’s deep, dynamic relationship with her sister Marian, or Ramsay’s affecting admissions about the regrets she carries from her estrangement to her own sister. These conversations play off interviews with Lacombe’s models, which include a pair of sisters who describe their fierce, almost codependent, bond, as well as a former couple who continue to enjoy working together on shoots due to a persisting connection, and a father with his infant daughter who describes their relationship as one of “best friends.” At one point, Lacombe describes a relationship as when one “accepts to be seen” by another — it’s an abstract notion, but it speaks to the looseness with which a person meets the world when they’re willing to accept the unexpected in others. At the very least, these fragments of personal confession breathe another dimension of life into the humanistic beauty of Lacombe’s portraiture in a way that only a filmic accompaniment could.
What seems to captivate Ramsay most about Lacombe is the photographer’s propensity to live absolutely in the moment. She dismisses her photographic process as having “nothing to do with the technical,” instead focusing on the intimacy of working one-to-one with a subject. A dolly zoom towards Lacombe working away behind her camera at the film’s outset is repeated in reverse at its close, as if Ramsay is retreating from a state of intense focus, but the two creatives continue to chat and joke even over these final moments. Brigitte is a slight and sweet addition to Ramsay’s catalogue, and it gently leaves its impressions. The ins and outs of Lacombe’s career remain on the edges, but what does linger as the image recedes is the depth of her curiosity and the generousness of her gaze.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.