Agnes Godard Interview: Women Cinematographers and Claire Denis
Veteran contributor Claire Denis explained how she navigated a male-dominated profession and where she’s headed in the future.
In 2001, Agnès Godard became the first woman to win the Césare award for best cinematography alone (Marie Perennou shared it with three men in 1997 for her documentary Mikrokosmosz). He won the Godard Award for filming Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, a poetic riff on “Billy Budd,” which examines the masculinity of the French Foreign Legion.
“I thought it was funny because the movie is about these men,” he said, sitting down for an interview in New York ahead of a new series of films of his work. “It was a bit ironic. I smiled a little. It wasn’t revenge. But it was funny.” However, the landmark moment did not bring any headlines. “No one mentioned it at the time,” he said.
While the number of female cinematographers around the world has grown in recent years, it was a much narrower field when Godard, 71, entered the field more than 30 years ago. “Sometimes there were difficulties,” Godard said. “People thought that maybe we weren’t as capable because we were ‘weak’ or ‘fragile’. I think when you do this kind of work, you have to have a very strong conviction about it. Sometimes it is hard. But if you find it, you’ll find the strength to get through it.”
Because of their relationship with Denis when they both worked as assistants on the set of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Godard worked as a cinematographer on Denis’s Chocolat and then shot the documentary Cinema, de Notre Temps by filmmaker Jacques Rivette. in 1990. Since then, they have worked together on almost all of Denis’s projects. Godard’s vivid lighting schemes and fluid camera movements contributed to Denis’ unique directorial voice and seeped into his collaborations with other filmmakers, many of whom are women.
In the past decade, Godard has made three films for Swiss-French filmmaker Ursula Meier, from 2008’s “Home” to 2012’s “Sister” and last year’s “The Line,” which opened last week in the U.S. in the States. Godard traveled to New York for a mini-retrospective of his work at Metrograph, which included Agnes Varda’s Jacquot De Nantes, Beau Travail and another major Denis collaboration, Trouble Every Day.
While his work with Denis continues—the filmmaker told Godard he recently settled on the idea of a new joint project—Godard is also working with younger filmmakers. She recently shot ‘Rabia’, the story of a woman who travels to Syria to join extremist fighters, marking the debut of German director Marika Engelhardt. The film is currently searching for a place in Cannes, where Godard will be part of an independent jury that will award the film in the main competition with a special craft award.
Godard said his pioneering status only dawned on him over time. “I thought about that,” he said. “It’s true that when I started there were very few women working, but I was just naive about it. My own impression was whether or not I could do the job. After a while, I felt like I was the exception—which doesn’t mean fantastic exception, just exception.”
Godard said she continues to engage with younger women in her field, including Knives Out cinematographer Ashley Connor, whom she planned to visit during her trip to New York. “The challenge is different now,” Godard said. “I think the idea should be that the female gaze is not as specific as the male gaze. For me, there is a different kind of gaze that belongs to the uniqueness and richness of human beings, and which is not only determined by sexual identity.”
In many ways, Godard was able to keep up with the changing times. With “Sister,” he switched from film to digital and never looked back. “I have to say I resisted it a little bit,” he said. “It was still a compressed image. It was a bit difficult because there was less latitude to interfere with what he wanted to do. But that’s not the case anymore. I was nostalgic and it was stupid. I had to be more curious about it.” Over time, he began to appreciate the flexibility of digital cameras. “You can take the Sony VENICE camera apart, so it’s quite easy to work with,” he said. “And we’re shooting a lot more than when we were working with negatives.”
One aspect of the process has never changed. Despite the regular presence of monitors on modern sets, Godard focuses on the action in front of the camera. “I like being close to the story,” he said.
Despite his technological advances, Godard took a similar approach to lighting his work and improvising with camera movement. He was ambivalent about more ostentatious digital cinematography, especially the ubiquitous long take. “It’s not exactly cinema anymore,” he said. “Something is happening in real time. Adding shots and cutting between shots is supposed to feel something. It’s a different kind of work. There have been feature films made in one take that can produce a certain effect. But either he’s doing it just for the performance or because he thinks it’s good for the movie he’s making.”
In the 2017 Denis drama Let the Sunshine In, Godard filmed Juliette Binoche dancing with her character’s lover in a single take to emphasize the scene’s romantic tension. “I tried to follow the rhythm of their music and then add the camera’s own rhythm,” he said. “It introduces a different rhythm within the rhythm of the scene. That’s what fiction is.”
If Godard doesn’t have a token technique as a cinematographer, it’s by design. “There are many ways to find new things in the cinema,” he said. “As a technician, you have to be like a chameleon to find out what the director is comfortable with.”
Godard said he worries about the ubiquity of amateur videos in the online age. “It could mean that this job of the DoP could be compromised because the images are being released in a kind of basic way,” he said. “But I think there are very few people around the world who do this work. They are the guardians of the quality of the images. Let’s hope that real images will travel through time.”
“The Line” is now in limited theaters from Strand Releasing.
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