Film Books: Conversations with Darius Khondji (2018) - Reviewed

Ever since his work on David Fincher’s 1995 modern neo-noir classic Se7en, the Iranian-French director of photography Darius Khondji became instantly recognized as one of the film industry’s finest cinematographers the movie world had ever seen.  Born in Tehran, Iran to an Iranian father and French mother, the soon-to-be cinema giant moved to France during his youth where he was introduced to the world of moviegoing. 

Quickly inspired to start making his own films, Khondji generated a handful of Super-8 short films before making the leap to the United States to study at UCLA, NYU and the International Center of Photography.  It was during this time two of his film professors (one of whom taught Martin Scorsese) persuaded Khondji to follow his true vocation as a film cinematographer.

Having worked as an assistant to other cinematographers in the early 1980s, Khondji found work among music videos and commercials before his first big break in 1989 with the French film Embrasse-Moi, gradually working his way up to a working relationship with Jean-Pierre Jeunet whom he would shoot three features for.  It wasn’t until Se7en with his unique silver-retention developmental process that his ornate and precise mastery of the film camera caught the attention of the film world and notably The Hollywood Reporter author Jordan Mintzer (Conversations with James Gray), who with Khondji fashioned what has shaped up to be the finest and most comprehensive film book of the year, Conversations with Darius Khondji.

A bilingual English-French hardbound book featuring interviews with Khondji as well as many of his collaborators including directors Woody Allen, Bernardo Bertolucci, James Gray and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, numerous photographers and fellow technicians as well as distinguished actress Isabelle Huppert’s own testimonies about working with Khondji, the amount of materials contained therein are overwhelming from the moment you open upon the first page.  Released exclusively through French publisher Synecdoche, the “Cinema Bible” as called by Variety is not available through conventional retailers.  With the one and only US release given a limited run through Metrograph in New York, I tracked down a copy sold through Synecdoche and the rest is history.

Loaded with on-set photographs, storyboards, Polaroids, annotated screenplays and reprinted snapshots from every picture he has ever worked on, the book unfolds like a classroom text, full of visual information with the reader gradually adopting much of the freely spoken industry terminology.  But the text isn’t impenetrable to newcomers to film eager to learn where a man of Khondji’s stature got his starting point in appreciating as well as creating film.  In other words, the book can be picked up by film or photography students as well as those even mildly interested in film and everyone will come away feeling refreshed or finding their inner cinematic bug energized.

Dense, immensely detailed and passionately written, Conversations with Darius Khondji is as essential a textbook of film as any ever produced.  While Khondji himself doesn’t refer to himself as having his own style, favoring the notion of being completely in service to the auteur directing the film, fans of the cinematographer’s work will notice idiosyncrasies in the lighting, soft monochromatic colors and ability to paint shimmers of light in almost total darkness. 

For the industry insider it’s an indelible guide to learning the art and trade of becoming a cinematographer while also discovering what it truly means to digest and appreciate cinema.  For the average cinephile like myself, reading Mr. Khondji speaking about his life’s work and how he rose to the occasion of becoming the working professional he is today is inspiring and enthralling to behold.  There’s so much here it will take you a lifetime to absorb it all.

Khondji remains well at work on film today, having recently shot Nicolas Winding Refn’s television series Too Old to Die Young as well as the Safdie brothers’ newly released thriller Uncut Gems.  If Conversations with Darius Khondji teaches readers anything it expresses the importance of a cinematographer’s role in the art of film production, how he interprets a filmmaker’s vision and translates it to the screen using his own personal set of skills and tools, and how the cinematographer in painting a picture is as much of a visual artist as the film director.  

Unquestionably the most detail-oriented book dedicated to a cinematographer yet released, Conversations with Darius Khondji represents a treasure trove of cinema knowledge that will take you a lifetime to wade through but little to no time at all to appreciate its grandeur.  Film books this lovingly made don’t come around often.

--Andrew Kotwicki