Get to Know: Darius Khondji

Truly great cinematographers are able to not only assist in realizing artistic vision but also to dovetail their own unique style with the directors to enhance the composition of a film. Long overlooked by moviegoers, the job of a cinematographer is to subtly convey emotion, mood and tone; to colorize, glamorize and contextualize using technical knowledge and an artist’s eye. This marriage of art and science is a difficult one to manage. When done correctly, a cinematographer’s style highlights rather than outshines.

One such cinematographer is Darius Khondji. His resume reads like a who’s who of the directing world, and he’s worked on some of your favorite films. Born in Iran but growing up in France, Khondji’s earlier work saw him provide surreal, grimy colors to Jeunet & Caro’s Delicatessen (1991) and The City of Lost Children (1995).  Working with David Fincher on Se7en (1995), Khondji’ developed a bleaching system to use on the film; as a result the bleak, sharp tones brought a graphic novel look to the screen that even the warm glow of the featured A-listers couldn’t soften. The next year, Bertollucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996) granted Khondji the first chance to bring light to his work and exploit the beauty of the film’s surroundings. His work with the Italian director demonstrates a softness unseen previously in his work; an elemental color scheme highlighting the lush greens of the countryside in the dusky Mediterranean Summer.

Alan Parker’s Evita (1996) saw Khondji balance the passionate flair of the Argentinian backdrop with rich interior surroundings and both elements marry with the image of Madonna perfectly. His ability to handle the complexity of this 2-hour musical earned him his first and only Oscar nomination. Yet to win a major award for his work, he has also been nominated for a Cesar and an Independent Spirit Award since then.

The next year he worked with British video artist Chris Cunnigham on the video for Madonna’s Frozen. Similar in style to his earlier work with Fincher, Jeunet & Caro, Khondji brings richness and depth to blurry surrealism with apparent ease. In 1999, he re-joined  Cunnigham on the Leftfield single Afrika Shox ; the hard-edged, straight lines of the bleak cityscape remind us all too much of Se7en (even down to the shadowy silver) and again, the use of body altering CGI adds to the weirdness, which Darius takes in his stride. If Frozen conjures an H.R Giger painting, then Shox is a still by Alessandrini.

It’s of no surprise that the cinematography on Alien Resurrection (1997) reminds the viewer of The City of Lost Children. Jean Pierre Jeunet’s direction and an appearance by Ron Perlman make this a reunion of sorts, and Khondji uses this to revisit some of the color and texture of his past collaboration but given the bigger budget, utilizes blurry underwater shots and God’s eye views of perilous drops to accentuate the bizarre, imminent danger Jeunet’s film presents.
As the list of famed directors vying for his services grew, the greasy darkness in Khondji’s work began to evolve. Working with Polanski on The Ninth Gate (1999), James Gray on The Immigrant (2013) and reuniting with Fincher for Panic Room (2002), there again is a stark feel to his output, backlit by fire and forgoing the liquidity he poured onscreen in his early French work. An advertising campaign for Dior again highlights the deep, rich solidity of candlelight, allowing Charlize Theron’s beauty to glow against the Versailles backdrop.

Just as he did with the Italian backdrop of Stealing Beauty, and Richard Loncraine’s Wimbledon (2004), Khondji showcases the surroundings as a major player in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) & To Rome with Love (2012). Both features have Khondji dim the lights of metropolitan Europe (the former more than the latter) but it is in the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris that bowled me over. Part fantasy, part historical love film, Khondji switches between time zones by changing the focus and depth of the shots used, and the ease in which Owen Wilson’s lonely screenwriter walks from one era to the other is handled subtly by the Frenchman. A fourth collaboration with Allen (Irrational Man) released this year and Khondji’s pastel colors and warm interior shots continue to brighten his body of work, more ‘overcast’ than ‘bleak’ and staying more muted than 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight (another period film), in which the duo let the Sun and the stage lights shine.

Khondji is currently working with James Gray on the Brad Pitt produced The Lost City of Z – letting the cinematographer loose on the Amazon of the 1920’s. Tracking a famous explorer as he searches for a lost civilization, Gray’s claustrophobic style fits perfectly with the setting. It’s also a perfect fit for Khondji’s aesthetic- an illuminating take on ancient ruins and sludgy overgrown jungle promises to lend an eerie atmosphere for Charlie Hunman’s Col. Fawcett to investigate.