Big Shot

Agnès Godard’s moving pictures

Claire Denis, The Intruder, 2004, Super 35, sound, color, 102 minutes.

IF I WERE GUARDING the gates of heaven, I’d let in all the cinematographers, no questions asked. They toil for such piddling rewards here on Earth. No matter how transcendent their efforts, they answer to a director who may or may not know anything about lenses or color grading but gets the bulk of the credit either way. On the rare occasion that a cinematographer receives some mainstream attention, it’s usually because there’s something showoff-y about the work: Emmanuel Lubezki’s look-ma-no-cuts trickery for Birdman, say, or Roger Deakins’s for 1917, which transplants roughly the same technique from Midtown Manhattan to the Western Front.

Frame for frame and movie for movie, Agnès Godard rivals Lubezki and Deakins and every other cinematographer you could name, but her most distinguishing quality may be her refusal to wave her virtuosity in the audience’s face. Her images don’t need your approval; instead of clinging to beauty, they brush by it on the way to more. When I think of Godard, I find that I don’t remember elegant compositions (though there are plenty) so much as rooms, surfaces, colors, atmospheres, bodies, faces, and landscapes: the painting we glide over at the start of Jacquot de Nantes (1991) as though peering down from an airplane; the thick purplish scar on Michel Subor’s chest ripening to orange over the course of The Intruder (2004); the abandoned highway where the family in Home (2008) plays hockey; the face of Alex Descas transmitting every frequency of love and despair in 35 Shots of Rum (2008). “Curiously, with Claire, I have a hard time speaking of shots,” Godard said in a 2018 interview with Film Comment. A funny thing for a professional shotmaker to admit, but watch her films and you start see what she means: Her camera hints as much as it defines, glimpsing things a dozen different ways until you can close your eyes and rebuild them in your head.

Claire Denis, 35 Shots of Rum, 2008, 35 mm, color, sound, 100 minutes. Lionel (Alex Descas).

Godard was talking about Claire Denis, her most important and frequent collaborator, but she could make the same observation about her work for Agnès Varda or Ursula Meier or any of the other directors whose films she’s shot since the early ’90s. One of the many striking things about her cinematography, currently the subject of a series at New York’s Metrograph, is its consistency: Even in her first feature as a DP, Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes, she’s utterly herself. The film, a tribute to Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, twinkles with clips from his ’60s musicals (much the way The Intruder is sharpened by footage of a younger, tauter Subor in the 1965 adventure film Le reflux), but for every song, Godard takes us on a quiet, sobering crawl over the present-day Demy’s gray, loose skin, studying it almost wrinkle by wrinkle. In the years ahead, she’d make many more expeditions across many more bodies, and the motif would become as distinctive as Pollock’s splatter.

Agnès Varda, Jacquot de Nantes, 1991, 35 mm, sound, color, 118 minutes. Jacquot (Philippe Maron).

One reason for her consistency is lateness. She was forty years old by the time of Jacquot’s release, having spent most of the ’80s working as a camera operator and assistant, and had no interest in resume-padding (to compare Godard with Lubezki again, only one of them lensed The Cat in the Hat). She’d met Denis while in film school but became her good friend several years later, while the two of them were working on Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984), Godard as camera assistant, Denis as first assistant director. It is a truth too rarely pondered that the greatest living director-cinematographer duo neither directed nor lensed a single feature for the first decade of their careers: In an industry lousy with self-promoting wunderkinder, they spent their twenties and thirties feasting on influences. Paris, Texas, with its Robby Müller cinematography, one foot in dreamland and the other in dirty realism, was among the most important of these—somewhere in the deserts of Djibouti, a few paces behind the green-uniformed legionnaires of Beau Travail (1999), Harry Dean Stanton staggers around in his bright-red cap.

Claire Denis, Beau Travail, 1999, 35 mm, color, sound, 93 minutes. A legionnaire (Marc Veh) and Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor).

Still, Denis has never filmed anything like Stanton’s long, mystery-puncturing monologue from the climax of Paris, Texas. To the extent that the characters in Beau Travail reveal their motives at all, they do it by flaring their nostrils or doing pushups, and as such, Godard’s keen, tactile cinematography is essential for communicating the few blips of information we’re permitted. The first step when shooting a Denis film, she’s said, is to choose the right lenses for skin, but at this point in her career she could probably make anything look like skin. Her work for Meier’s Sister (2012), about a pair of impoverished siblings trying to make ends meet in the Swiss Alps, would be astonishing even if it hadn’t been her first time shooting on digital; one of the most subtly spectacular scenes finds the younger brother showing his sister how to make stolen skis look brand-new by scraping them until they’re as smooth as a newborn’s cheek. It’s the kind of frank-tender moment that Godard has made her specialty: an interaction between lonely people with feelings for each other so complex they can only be expressed indirectly. When the sister spills cigarette ash on her brother’s handiwork, you wince.

Ursula Meier, Sister, 2012, color, sound, 97 minutes. Simon and Louise (Kacey Mottet Klein and Léa Seydoux).

Loneliness is one of the hardest things for the movies to get right. Visually, the easiest way to convey it is with smallness, and the easiest way to convey smallness is to contrast it with bigness, which runs the risk of seeming too grandiose. Think of Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti, dwarfed by nature and architecture at the end of L’Avventura—sublime, sure, but not like any loneliness I’ve ever known. Operatic cinematography drowns out the personal instead of accentuating it. Godard may insist she doesn’t think in terms of shots, but if I had to stake her greatness on a single one, I’d choose the final seconds of 35 Shots of Rum, in which Descas’s character, having said goodbye to the daughter he loves more than life, finds himself the owner of one rice cooker more than he needs. This won’t sound like much if you haven’t seen the film, and in fact the not-muchness of what’s in the frame is the most overwhelming thing about it. As precise as she is sentimental, Godard leaves you with a loneliness only millimeters removed from warmth, a feeling you can almost hold with your hands—not an opera but a long, hot sigh.

“Lensed by Agnès Godard” runs at Metrograph in New York from March 31 to April 8.