Interview with Agnes Godard: camerawomen and Claire Denis

Claire Denis’ experienced collaborator explained how she found her way in a male-dominated profession and where she sees it going in the future.

In 2001, Agnès Godard became the first woman to win the Césare award for best camera alone (Marie Perennou shared it with three men for her documentary Microcosmos in 1997). Godard’s award was for filming Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, the poetic riff on Billy Budd, which explores masculinity in the French Foreign Legion.

“I thought it was funny because the film was about all these men,” she said, as she sat down for an interview in New York ahead of a new film series of her work. “It was kind of ironic. I smiled a little. It wasn’t revenge. But it was fun.” But the milestone moment didn’t make the headlines. “Nobody talked about it back then,” she said.

While the number of female cinematographers has increased worldwide in recent years, it was a much narrower field when 71-year-old Godard entered the profession over 30 years ago. “Sometimes there were some difficulties,” Godard said. “People thought maybe we weren’t performing as well because we were ‘weak’ or ‘fragile.’ I think if you do this kind of job you have to have a very strong belief in it. Sometimes it’s difficult. But when you find it, you will find the strength to get through it.”

After working with Denis when they both worked as assistants on the set of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Godard served as cinematographer on Denis’ Chocolate and then directed the Jacques Rivette documentary Cinema, de Notre Temps” by the filmmaker. in 1990. Since then, they have collaborated on almost all of Denis’ projects. Godard’s vivid lighting schemes and fluid camera movements contributed to Denis’s unique directorial style and also feed into her collaborations with other filmmakers, many of whom are women.

In the last decade, Godard has directed three films for Swiss-French filmmaker Ursula Meier, from 2008’s Home to 2012’s Sister and last year’s The Line, which was released last week in approached the USA. Godard made his way to New York to take part in a mini-retrospective of her work at Metrograph, which included Agnes Varda’s Jacquot De Nantes, Beau Travail, and another major collaboration with Denis, Trouble Every Day .

As her work with Denis continues – the filmmaker told Godard they recently agreed on an idea for a new project together – Godard is also pursuing work with younger filmmakers. She recently directed Rabia, the story of a woman who travels to Syria to join extremist fighters, the directorial debut of German director Marika Engelhardt. The film is currently seeking a spot at Cannes, where Godard will sit on an independent jury that will award a special craft prize to a film in the main competition.

Beau Travail

Godard said her pioneering status came to her over time. “I’ve thought about it,” she said. “It’s true, when I started there were very few women working, but I was just naive. My own impression was whether I was able to do this job or not. After a while I felt like an exception – which didn’t mean a fantastic exception, just an exception.”

Godard said she has continued to engage with younger women in her field, including Knives Out cinematographer Ashley Connor, who planned to visit during her New York trip. “The challenge is different now,” Godard said. “I think the idea should be to not describe the female gaze as precisely as the male gaze. For me, there is a different perspective that belongs to the singularity, to the richness of the human being, which is not only defined by sexual identity.”

In many ways, Godard has kept pace with the times. With “Sister” she made the transition from film to digital and has never looked back. “I have to say, I resisted it a bit,” she said. “It was still a compressed image. That was a bit difficult because there was less leeway to get involved in what you wanted to do. But that is no longer the case. I was nostalgic and that was stupid. I had to be more curious about it.” Over time, she came to appreciate the flexibility of digital cameras. “You can disassemble the Sony VENICE camera into parts so it’s easy to work with,” she said. “And we’re shooting a lot more than we did when we were working with negatives.”

One aspect of their process has never changed. Despite the regular presence of monitors on modern sets, Godard’s focus is on what is happening in front of the camera. “I like being close to the story,” she says.

Despite her technological upgrade, Godard has maintained a similar approach to lighting her work and improvising with camera movement. She was ambivalent about flashier digital cinematography, particularly the ubiquitous long take. “It’s not exactly cinema anymore,” she said. “Something is happening in real time. Adding shots and cutting between shots is meant to create a sense of something. It’s a different kind of work. There are feature films shot in a setting that can create a specific effect. But either you’re just doing it for the performance or because you think it’s good for the film you’re doing.”

"Let the sunshine in"

“Let the Sunshine In”

That said, in the 2017 Denis drama Let the Sunshine In, Godard shot Juliette Binoche dancing with her character’s lover in a single shot to emphasize the romantic tension of the scene. “I tried to follow the rhythm of their music and then add the camera’s own rhythm,” she said. “It introduces a different rhythm to the rhythm of the scene. This is fiction.”

If Godard doesn’t have a signature technique as a cinematographer, then that’s intentional. “There are so many ways to discover new things through cinema,” she said. “As a technician, you have to be like a chameleon to figure out what’s comfortable for the director.”

Godard said she’s concerned about the ubiquity of amateur video in the online age. “It could mean that this job as a DoP could be in jeopardy because of the ease with which images are published,” she said. “But I think in the whole world there are really rare people who do this job. They are the custodians of image quality. Let’s hope real images travel through time.”

The Line is now in limited Strand Releasing theaters.

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