Claire Denis’s Beau Travail breathtakingly juxtaposes textures and colors—bodies against rocks, rocks against water, water against bodies—without ever feeling labored or precious. The movie’s formal beauty is due in no small part to Denis’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Agnès Godard.
After spending a couple of years studying to be a journalist—because she felt “that I could never make it in film”—Godard, who grew up in the French provinces, overcame her self-consciousness and applied to Paris’s preeminent film school. “[My family] wasn’t particularly connected to movies or photography,” she recalls,”but I’ve always been fascinated by images. My father, a taciturn man, expressed himself through the family pictures he took. To this day I find family pictures particularly troubling and moving, because they’re made out of love, not for commercial reasons.”
After graduating in 1980, Godard first worked with Denis on Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas: Godard was a camera operator, Denis an assistant director. Denis later hired Godard on her feature debut, Chocolat, in 1988. Though the two women have since worked together regularly, Beau Travail might be their most spectacular accomplishment, a model of symbiosis between director and cinematographer.
Godard admires Denis’s work methods: “Claire is always about research, about exploring film as a medium,” she says. “For her the point of making Beau Travail on such a small budget was to do something experimental. It’s by working with Claire that I’ve been able to better understand what the camera means to me.”
Godard’s artistry can be hard to pinpoint, as she avoids obvious flourishes—no chichi blue lighting or hypercontrasted shadows for her. Instead she shapes a distinctive identity for each movie. So she easily switched from Nénette and Boni‘s lush close-ups, in which bodies became landscape, to Beau Travail‘s sun-crushed long shots, in which bodies were part of the landscape. She handled wildly kinetic scenes in Noëmie Lvovsky’s coming-of-age tale I’m Not Afraid of Life, as well as the quiet, tender realism of Erick Zonca’s Dreamlife of Angels. Modestly, she explains, “As a technician you have to be a chameleon and adapt to different directors. But I don’t like the idea of simply illustrating a script. A script is pages and words, and the image is the basic unit of the film’s language. So it’s very important to work out the transition from word to image.”
Over her 10 years as a cinematographer, Godard has attempted to work out that transition by focusing on actors and establishing between them and the audience a relationship based on affection and understanding, not exploitation. “I don’t like feeling like a voyeur. The most inexhaustible landscapes for me remain faces and bodies: I like to look at people, to look at them in order to love them. It’s like dancing with someone, except with a camera you don’t touch them. I just want to tell them that I’d like to put my hand on them.”