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“The Search for Images is a Search That Can Last Forever”: Agnès Godard on The Line and Nenétte et Boni

The Line

Agnès Godard films the opening sequence of her fifth collaboration (following four features and a short) with writer-director Ursula Meier, The Line (La Ligne), in static slow motion: Margaret (Stéphanie Blanchoud) hits her mother (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), who falls and collides against the keys of her own piano, rendering her deaf in the impacted ear. A restraining order charges the eldest daughter not to come within 200 meters of her mother—an invisible boundary she immediately ignores with abrasive attempts to make amends until her younger sister paints a literal perimeter around the house. Margaret hovers at a little hill at one end of the line where she and her younger sister stubbornly keep up their customary music practice.

The Line moves much differently than Godard’s exemplary handheld works with Claire Denis, which are playing at Metrograph along with three of Meier’s films as part of the series “Lensed by Agnès Godard.” Compared to Godard’s work with Denis, her films with Meier are generally more stable. But then, the former pair’s first collaboration, Home, has a bit more of that comforting camera shake. This is due in part to it being the first and last project Godard and Meier shot on film, a format that allows Godard to use her beloved, exquisitely balanced Aaton camera bodies. They shot their second film, Sister, on Arri’s first digital cinema camera, the Alexa classic, and the resultant bulk kept its center of gravity more often planted on a tripod on the ground. Similarly, when Godard shifted to digital with Claire Denis on Let the Sunshine In, the new form factor brought their visceral frames to a relative halt. 

Godard talks with us about digital versus film camera body ergonomics, the significance and influence of location, and the ongoing “worry” to find the “right” images. “Lensed by Agnès Godard” runs at Metrograph from March 31st to April 9th.

Filmmaker: Was Wim Wenders’s The State of Things actually the first thing you worked on as a camera assistant?

Godard: Yeah. It was incredible [laughs] because I was totally new. It was really my first job. This was due to [Henri] Alekan, who asked me to work with him. I said, “Oh, maybe this is too much! Don’t you remember I haven’t done anything yet?” “I’m the only one who knows that so it doesn’t matter.” [laughs] 

Filmmaker: What was your first impression of set work? 

Godard: It was like a dream somehow, but I was really impressed by the knowledge of Alekan, the powerful way of working of Wim Wenders, and I was terribly worried to not be able to do it. It was a very heavy weight on the shoulders. I felt I would die if I made a mistake. So, I did not eat that much. [laughs] That lasted quite a long time, and somehow I’m still somehow so concerned about the work as if it’s the most important thing in the world. [laughs] 

Being a director takes a lot of energy, vigor and intimacy, so that’s why I am so concerned about finding the right way to be a companion on a film. I think it’s because I’m still totally attracted to how you can say things with images. I should put it another way—to finding the right images to tell and believe in the story. The search for images is a search that can last forever. 

Filmmaker: Do you still have some of that fear around production?

Godard: A little bit, but that’s not because I think I have the knowledge, but because with time I learned to count on my intuition. To share this, to work and organize with my own crew is very important, and to find the right person you feel really comfortable with but even more than that—you believe in their professional and human qualities. It gives freedom. Collaboration with a crew gives you a very solid, very enjoyable base, and I think I just learned how to face reality, even when it’s difficult.

When a film is working, sometimes you cannot really explain why. It’s alchemy, and to build that with a crew—especially a gaffer and camera assistant—[means] I don’t feel that much alone. The only moment I feel alone is when I’m framing and my only question is, “Do I believe in what I see, for what we are looking for?” Still, I am sometimes worried. Maybe not fear, but worried. During shooting, I’m entirely devoted to the work.

Filmmaker: In all of your collaborations with Ursula Meier, I imagine you have a recurring crew that provides you this solid base.

Godard: I’ve worked with her more than four times. At the Metrograph program, there will be three [of our] feature films. The first and second one were done with the same crew. The last one, not entirely, because my gaffer is like me—he’s old [laughs]—and doesn’t work anymore. So, I worked with a very young gaffer, and this has been really fantastic because I’ve really loved working with this guy. It’s totally different because my old gaffer was from the same generation as me. The first time I worked with this gaffer was on La Ligne, [but on that set] everybody assumed we knew each other for a long time.

Filmmaker: What’s his name? 

Godard: Thibault Danjou. 

Filmmaker: How did he differ from your past gaffer? Did he use different tools, more LEDs? 

Godard: Let’s say that it was like discovering a lot of new equipment and tools. But it was a mix. The way of working and searching with him was the same. I tried to work the same way, which is to spend time in the locations—because I think locations are very important. When you choose a location, there is always something with light or shape that has been chosen somehow for you and gives you a lot of clues. I’ve been working with him, and only with him, ever since.

Filmmaker: I liked that in La Ligne everything feels very connected with the actual location. You can tell, for example, that the house you see in the wide shots of the town is the actual house you shoot in for interiors as well.

Godard: That was a bit special with this location: you could go through the town without even noticing the house because it was so ordinary. There was a lot of scouting to find the place. It was the only one that would offer this distance and this possibility to be isolated [on one end] but to see [out] the other way. It was a bit different than what was written. When Ursula wrote the film, she invented the geography of the location and imagined we would see only a little bit of the house where the mother is, from the place where the daughter is isolated [on one side of the 200-meter line]. But then I thought it would be even more difficult to have to stay away while still seeing the place where you want to go.

I spent time at the beginning, middle and end of days and discovered that there was something in between the mountains and this little house. We modified the house a little bit. I suggested we build this part on the right side of the house—where there is a kind of little appendage and windows—because I thought the interior was too small. There was going to be a big piano. Because of the sun also. This will give us more opportunities to be in relation to the place where the daughter is.

Because the location was so ordinary, I suggested shooting in Scope [2.35, in this case]. Suddenly it was totally different. It was like scenery. Very simple, like a kid drawing. I thought it was going to be fun. 

Filmmaker: Did the homeowner get to keep the extensions to the house? 

Godard: No, because in Switzerland it’s a bit complicated [due to strict rules and regulations on home renovations by the Gemeinde, or municipality]. They could not keep it! [laughs] I’m not sure they would have loved to [keep it] but also I don’t think it would have been strong enough to face rain and snow and everything. But anyways they were not allowed to, so it’s gone now. [laughs]

Filmmaker: You mentioned shooting Scope in the house, and that final shot—a seemingly simple move where the lead actors switch positions in the house—is really only possible in that aspect ratio, and ends up being so dynamic.

Godard: We didn’t know exactly how to do this shot. But for food, I watched Bergman films again. He made so many films with two faces of women, Persona and so on. So, I had in mind that the best way was to find something where these two women would face each other and then be separated. We call that in French mise en place, which I’m sure you understand. Suddenly, there was something in the move that the actresses were doing and I saw where I could put the camera. This is kind of a combination of the improvised mise en place of the actresses and a way to build it, make it precise, with them—to obtain this face-to-face to back-to-back idea.

During the shooting, we lost daylight. After a little while I had to light everything, because it was totally night outside. My gaffer emptied the truck—it took everything to make daylight. I also had to find a way to not see too many of the windows, because it was total night for five hours [of shooting]. We shot in the winter, so daylight was very short.

Filmmaker: The film has a particular, diffused, overcast daylight throughout.

Godard: I knew this area in Switzerland a little bit so I knew what the weather was going to be like. We had snow at the very beginning and then never, which was good luck. It’s not the weather or the light that was so important in the choice, but I worked with that. I wanted to have clear weather, clear sky—something transparent not heavy, not sad, no psychological effect in the light of the place. I changed the light of the road because I didn’t want sodium; I thought it would be too thick. I prefer this kind of wide gray transparency. It’s there, it’s night. There is shadow, there is light. The only thing with Ursula is that we decided that inside it would be warm, but outside it would be colder—but not blue. Not like an oil painting, but like watercolor. 

Filmmaker: How did your switch with Claire from film to digital (Sony F65) on Let the Sunshine In compare to when you switched from film to digital (Arri Alexa Classic) with Ursula earlier in your collaborations together on Sister? 

Godard: That’s a bit touchy, because at the time digital camera sensors were not able to produce RAW recordings, it was ProRes compressed images. Shooting in the mountain, the snow and everything, it was a big—ugh! But that’s the way it is. Finally, the biggest surprise is that I have not since shot any feature film on negative. Now there are some fantastic sensors and cameras, so it’s much more pleasant. At the beginning [of digital cinematography] I was a bit sad because I could not forget the negative. But then after a little while, I thought, “Listen, stop this. You have to work.” But it’s true that it has an effect on the way of working of a set, because directors film a lot more. It’s like the world: it’s always moving forward.

Filmmaker: Did you use a digital Arri camera again on La Ligne?

Godard: No, I used a Sony Venice.

Filmmaker: Why that body and whatever lenses you chose?

Godard: I wanted to register 6K. And also because you could split the camera into two parts. [From the manual, on the Venice’s Extension system: “The lightweight and easy-to-use tethered extension system allows the camera body to detach from the image sensor block with no degradation in image quality. The image sensor block weighs 4 lbs with PL mount and 3 lbs using the native E-mount, and the cable system can extend from 9 or 18 feet, offering a highly configurable, flexible and portable method of operation.”] I was very happy with the tests. The marriage with the [EZ series] Angenieux zoom gave me just the texture I was looking for.

Filmmaker: I know you love and swear by the Aaton cameras’ ergonomics for handheld when shooting film and that the bulkiness of the Sony F65 basically dictated that you and Claire shoot Let the Sunshine In entirely on sticks. Have you yet found a digital camera that is comparable in distribution of weight and form and ease of handheld use to the Aatons?

Godard: No. [very elongated laugh] No no no. And that will remain definite, I’m afraid. 

Filmmaker: I watched Nenétte et Boni just after watching La Ligne. Both films end with a shot of a face. Did you know the latter would close on that shot?

Godard: I didn’t know. I think it was written in the script that she was in the garden. But I did not miss that. With Claire, it goes like that.

Filmmaker: You and Claire shift to some apparently long lenses here. What was it like to shoot in that handheld mode with all that added weight and camera shake? There are really smooth, precise handheld moves throughout in spite of the combo.

Godard: I remember that we tried to build a machine that could move and allow me to do things. [laugh] It was a bit complicated. We used it once when she’s working in the laundry. But after that I don’t think we used it much; it was not very convincing. I had this experience earlier on Claire’s film No Fear, No Die on 35mm. That film was shot entirely handheld and I found the experience very exciting in terms of what lens to choose, what distance you have with the actors, when you move. Who is this character, the camera that you never see? On this film, we still used the tripod, but the real jump was maybe Beau Travail because I [did] some shots on 100mm on the shoulder, on accident. This choice came up on the set because of what was going on. It was not intellectualized before. 

Filmmaker: What was the machine you mentioned, some kind of Steadicam?

Godard: It was kind of like a vertical dolly. There was something here like [she draws it in the air with her hands from her back, over her head, to her chest]—you see what I mean?

Filmmaker: Like an Easyrig?

Godard: Yeah, kind of, but on a base with wheels. [laughs] 

Filmmaker: Does anyone still use this?

Godard: [shrugs] I don’t know. It was nice actually, but you would need a road that’s in really good shape to use [it].

Filmmaker: I’ve been talking with camera people about how they maintain their bodies. A lot of injuries stem from extended handheld operating. How have you maintained your body over the years doing so much of that?

Godard: I was born in the country, so I used to run in the forest. Now, in Paris, I tried, but I don’t like to run in Paris, or even in the little forests around Paris, because the ground is very hard, very tough, like concrete. I like when it’s soft. So, I switched to gymnastics.  

Filmmaker: Did you ever experience any kind of injury?

Godard: For me, the main thing, as with many people, was always the repartition of weight. Also, I learned to breathe with my tummy, and not from my chest, so as not to move that much. I think I found the right way to move with the handheld camera by listening to music. Listening to music, you follow a rhythm and it makes you forget the physical difficulty and the weight. [laughs]

Filmmaker: So you listen to music while you operate on set?

Godard: Sometimes. Of course, [not all the time]. It’s a fantastic guide. It becomes more dance than work somehow. 

Filmmaker: Across all the films you’re showing at Metrograph there are many locations—Djibouti, Polynesia, South Korea, Jura, etc. What location most directly influenced the image?

Godard: Logically, I would say, of course, Polynesia is totally extraordinary. When you discover a place that is going to be a location, even if it’s in the east of France—a location becomes fascinating because it’s right, because it fits something, not only because it’s exotic. I was excessively impressed by Djibouti because the landscape was really spiritual. When I first arrived there, I had the strange feeling that it could be as much the beginning as the end of the world. There was the sky, the sea, the desert, and the bodies [all collapsed onto each other]. It’s a fantastic geographical part of the world. But I can also be impressed by a little corner in the forest or something like that. I would love to go to Iceland, and I guess New Zealand. I don’t know why. Because of the animals, maybe.

Filmmaker: Is there anything that you’ve been thinking about as you’ve been looking back at the work that we haven’t talked about?

Godard: What can I say? It’s a time with a new experience now. After years, you have to work sometimes on restorations. From grading [La Ligne], where we were having talks about being worried about the work, to suddenly working on the grading of a film you shot 20 or 30 years earlier, digitally, with the negative from that time—it’s fantastic. The worrying about being able to pull off the right work or not is totally gone. [laughs] It’s just enjoyable. It is incredibly joyful to find how the negative is alive. Color appears, you just tune it a little bit and it’s done. You can’t do anything about it anymore.  

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