In 2001, Agnès Godard became the first woman to win the Césare award for Best Cinematography on her own (Marie Perennou shared it with three men in 1997 for her documentary “Microcosmos”). Godard’s prize was for shooting Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” the poetic riff on “Billy Budd” that investigates masculinity in the French Foreign Legion.
“I thought it was funny because the film was about all these men,” she said, sitting down for an interview in New York ahead of a new film series of her work. “It was kind of ironic. I was smiling a bit. It wasn’t revenge. But it was funny.” But the milestone moment didn’t generate any headlines. “At the time, nobody mentioned it,” she said.
While the number of female cinematographers worldwide has inched up in recent years, it was a much narrower field when the 71-year-old Godard entered the profession over 30 years ago. “There were some difficulties sometimes,” Godard said. “People thought maybe we weren’t as capable because we were ‘weak’ or ‘fragile.’ I guess when you do this kind of job, you need to have a very strong conviction about it. Sometimes it’s difficult. But if you find it, you’ll find the strength to get through it.”
Having connected with Denis when they both worked as assistants on the set of Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas,” Godard served as the camera operator on Denis’ “Chocolat,” then shot the filmmaker’s Jacques Rivette documentary “Cinema, de Notre Temps” in 1990. They have worked together on nearly all of Denis’ projects since then. Godard’s vivid lighting schemes and fluid camera movement contributed to Denis’ unique directorial tone and also seep into her collaborations with other filmmakers, many of whom are women.
Over the past decade, Godard shot three movies for Swiss-French filmmaker Ursula Meier, from 2008’s “Home” through 2012’s “Sister” and last year’s “The Line,” which opened in the U.S. last week. Godard made her way to New York to attend a mini-retrospective of her work at Metrograph comprised of Agnes Varda’s “Jacquot De Nantes,” “Beau Travail,” and another major Denis collaboration, “Trouble Every Day.”
While her work with Denis continues — the filmmaker told Godard she recently settled on an idea for a new project together — Godard also pursues work with younger filmmakers. She recently shot “Rabia,” the story of a woman who travels to Syria to join extremist fighters, which marks the directorial debut of German director Marika Engelhardt. The movie is currently angling for a spot at Cannes, where Godard will serve on an independent jury that will award a special crafts prize to a film in the main competition.
Godard said her trailblazer status only occurred to her over time. “I’ve been thinking about this,” she said. “It’s true when I started there were very few women working, but I was just naive about it. My own impression was whether I was able to do this job or not. After a little bit of time, I felt like I was the exception — which didn’t mean a fantastic exception, just an exception.”
Godard said she continued to engage with younger women in her field, including “Knives Out” cinematographer Ashley Connor, whom she planned to visit during her New York trip. “The challenge is different now,” Godard said. “I think the idea should be not to be so specific about the female gaze as opposed to the male gaze. For me, there is a different kind of gaze that belongs to the singularity, to the richness of human beings, which is not only defined by sexual identity.”
Godard has kept up with changing times in many ways. With “Sister,” she made the switch from film to digital, and never looked back. “I must say I resisted it a little bit,” she said. “It was still a compressed image. That was a little difficult because the latitude to interfere with what you wanted to do was smaller. But that’s not the case anymore. I was being nostalgic and that was stupid. I needed to be more curious about it.” Over time, she came to appreciate the flexibility of digital cameras. “You can split the Sony VENICE camera into pieces so it’s quite easy to work with,” she said. “And we do shoot much more than when we were working with negatives.”
One aspect of her process never changed. Despite the regular presence of monitors on modern sets, Godard focuses on the action in front of the camera. “I like to be close to the story,” she said.
Despite her technological upgrade, Godard has maintained a similar approach to lighting her work and improvising with camera movement. She was ambivalent about more ostentatious digital cinematography, particularly the ubiquitous long take. “It’s not exactly cinema anymore,” she said. “It’s something happening in real-time. The addition of shots and cutting between shots is supposed to produce a sense of something. It’s a different kind of work. There have been feature films done in one take that can produce a certain effect. But either you do it just for the performance or because you think it’s good for the film you’re making.”
To wit: On the 2017 Denis drama “Let the Sunshine In,” Godard shot Juliette Binoche dancing with her character’s lover in a single take in order to accentuate the romantic tension of the scene. “I was trying to follow the rhythm of their music and then to add the camera’s own rhythm,” she said. “It introduces another rhythm within the rhythm of the scene. That’s what fiction is.”
If Godard doesn’t have a signature technique as a cinematographer, that’s by design. “There are so many ways to find new things with cinema,” she said. “As a technician, you have to be like a chameleon to find out what’s convenient for the director.”
Godard said she was concerned about the ubiquity of amateur videos in the online age. “It could mean that this job of DoP could end up being in danger because images are released in a kind of basic way,” she said. “But I guess, around the world, people doing this job are really rare. 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.