IF I MONITORED the gates of heaven, I would let all the filmmakers in, no questions asked. They toil for such paltry rewards here on Earth. No matter how transcendent their efforts, they cater to a director who may know nothing about lenses or color grading, but gets most of the credit anyway. On the rare occasions when a cinematographer receives mainstream attention, it’s usually because there’s something pretentious about the job: Emmanuel Lubezki’s look-ma-no-cuts trickery to birdmansay, or Roger Deakins for 1917which transplants much the same technique from Midtown Manhattan to the Western Front.
Frame for frame and film for film, Agnès Godard rivals Lubezki and Deakins and every other cinematographer you could name, but her most distinctive quality is perhaps her refusal to wave her virtuosity in front of the public. His images don’t need your approval; instead of clinging to beauty, they graze it to go further. When I think of Godard, I find that I don’t so much remember the elegant compositions (but there are a lot of them) as the rooms, surfaces, colors, atmospheres, bodies, faces and landscapes: the painting on which we slide at the beginning of Jacquot of Nantes (1991) as if watching from an airplane; the thick purplish scar on Michel Subor’s chest turning orange during the intruder (2004); the abandoned highway where the family in Home (2008) plays hockey; the face of Alex Descas transmitting all the frequencies of love and despair in 35 shots of rum (2008). “Curiously, with Claire, I find it difficult to talk about plans,” Godard said in a 2018 interview with Movie commentary. A funny thing for a professional filmmaker to admit, but watch her films and you begin to see what she means: her camera suggests as much as it defines, glimpsing things in a dozen different ways until you can close your eyes and reconstruct them in your head.
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 has shot since early 90s. One of the many striking things about his photography, which is currently the subject of a series at the Metrograph in New York, is his consistency: even in his first feature film as a DP, Varda Jacquot of Nantes, she is quite herself. The film, a tribute to Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy, sparkles with excerpts from his 60s musicals (much like the intruder is accentuated by images of a younger, more uptight Subor in the 1965 adventure film The ebb), but for each song, Godard takes us on a quiet, sobering exploration of the gray, loose skin of today’s Demy, the student almost wrinkle by wrinkle. In the years to come she would make many more expeditions through many other bodies, and the pattern would become as distinctive as Pollock’s splashes.
One of the reasons for its consistency is the delay. She was forty at the time of Jacquothaving spent most of the 80s working as a cameraman and assistant, and had no interest in resume padding (to again compare Godard with Lubezki, only one of them filmed The cat in the hat). She had met Denis at film school but became his good friend a few years later when they were both working on Wim Wenders’ film. Paris, Texas (1984), Godard as camera assistant, Denis as first assistant director. It’s a too-seldom-reflected truth that the greatest living director-cinematographer duo didn’t direct or film a single feature in the first decade of their career: in a lousy industry with self-promotion prodigythey spent their twenties and thirties feasting on influences. Paris, Texaswith his cinematography Robby Müller, one foot in dreamland and the other in dirty realism, was among the most prominent of these – somewhere in the deserts of Djibouti, just steps behind the green-uniformed legionnaires of Good work (1999), Harry Dean Stanton staggers with his bright red cap.
Yet Denis never filmed anything like Stanton’s long, mysterious monologue from the climax of Paris, Texas. Insofar as the characters of Good work reveal their motivations, they do so by dilating their nostrils or by doing push-ups, and as such, Godard’s tactile and lively cinematography is essential to communicate the little information that is allowed to us. The first step when shooting a Denis movie, she says, is choosing the right lenses for the skin, but at this point in her career, she could probably do anything. look like the skin. His work for Meier’s Sister (2012), about a pair of poor siblings trying to make ends meet in the Swiss Alps, would be stunning even if it weren’t the first time she had shot digitally; one of the more subtly dramatic scenes shows the younger brother showing his sister how to make stolen skis look new by scraping them until they’re as smooth as a newborn’s cheek. It is the kind of frank and tender moment that Godard has made a specialty of: an interaction between single people with feelings for each other so complex that they can only be expressed indirectly. When the sister spills cigarette ash on her brother’s work, you wince.
Loneliness is one of the hardest things for movies to understand. Visually, the easiest way to convey it is smallness, and the easiest way to convey smallness is to contrast it with greatness, which risks looking too grand. Think of Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti, overshadowed by nature and architecture at the end of The Adventure– sublime, of course, but not like all the solitudes I have ever known. The lyrical cinematography drowns out the personal instead of accentuating it. Godard can insist that she doesn’t think in terms of plans, but if I had to bet her greatness on just one, I’d pick the final seconds of 35 shots of rum, in which Descas’ character, after saying goodbye to the girl he loves more than life, finds himself the owner of one more rice cooker than he needs. That won’t seem like much if you haven’t seen the movie, and in fact, how little is in the frame is the most overwhelming thing about it. As precise as it is sentimental, Godard leaves you with a loneliness millimeters from the heat, a feeling you can almost hold with your hands – not an opera but a long, warm sigh.
“Lensed by Agnès Godard” takes place at the Metrograph in New York from March 31 to April 8.