Cinematographer Agnès Godard, AFC, discusses her work on "Let the Sunshine In", by Claire Denis

par Agnès Godard

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Director of photography Agnès Godard, AFC, has collaborated with Claire Denis for almost thirty years, since her first feature, Chocolat, in competition at Cannes in 1988. Director and cinematographer met on a Wim Wenders shoot, where Denis was the assistant director, and Godard the assistant to legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan.
Claire Denis believes “the image speaks to us, first and foremost”. In Let the Sunshine In, which opens the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, Agnès Godard accomplishes that aim, with a pearly, radiant image rendering Juliette Binoche (even more) beautiful. (BB)

Isabelle, divorced with a child, is looking for love. True love.
Starring Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Gérard Depardieu.

You describe Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) as a film of faces and words. What do you mean by that ?

Agnès Godard : The presence of words, in a film directed by Claire, is a novelty. The dialogues drive the action, which is unusual in her work. Christine Angot wrote the texts.
The scenes are fragments, creating a mosaic of a film. The settings are sometimes reduced to two or three elements, a bed, a window, a door, a seat in a café... Some of the scenes are really long, there are only 34 sequences in the whole film. Close-ups of faces, words : everything at point-blank range.

Juliette Binoche et Xavier Beauvois dans "Un beau soleil intérieur"
Juliette Binoche et Xavier Beauvois dans "Un beau soleil intérieur"

You and Claire Denis worked together for 30 years with film, light cameras, and a simplicity of process in your film-making. How does that compare ?

A.G : The film was shot with a Sony F65 and Primo 70mm primes, 27 to 100mm, in 4K. It’s true we worked a lot with the Aaton in the past. This is her second film in a digital format, the first being Bastards (Les Salauds). She doesn’t have a straightforward relationship yet with digital film.
We chose the combination of the F65 and the Primo 70s together. We had done a series of tests - thanks to Patrick Leplat at Panavision France - a year earlier, for a film which finally didn’t go into production.
Claire, both of us in fact, were compelled by those images : "mellow, smooth, voluptuous", that was the kind of adjective she was using, delicious enough that you want to go back to them.
It was planned as a rapid shoot, five weeks. Many of the locations were actually incredibly small, and it wasn’t possible to change them.
But despite the location constraints I kept the F65 because I thought it was essential to the vision of the film, to a visual narrative built on the faces. Juliette, above all, had to be radiant, opalescent.

The Mini F65 package Patrick Leplat put together for us was an enormous help, as well as the ingenuity and precision of François Tille, my key grip.
But beyond the whole logistical question, during the shoot with digital tools, the presence - though reduced to a minimum - of monitors, was something “alien” for Claire. A feeling of unease, in which crystallised some of her concerns in making the film.
I believe this is the deep-rooted memory of the knowledge and practice of analogue film, which offered us at times, I must say, a kind of shyness and yet spontaneity.

The camera/lens choice was key for filming the faces of the characters…1

A.G : They were the raw matter, the fundamental material of the film, especially Juliette’s face. We needed the camera/lens choice that could achieve the look I wanted : not a harsh digital look, but rather a gentleness. She had to be beautiful, radiant, I would say "pearly", with a sheen, a luminescence, like a pearl.
I wanted a simple image, soft, nuanced. A direct relationship with the characters. Yet at the same time not "naturalistic".
I have to thank Patrick Leplat once more for having suggested the Primo 70 series. The discussions we had on the subject confirmed that as the best choice. It was incredibly useful to be able to analyse that in detail with Patrick.
The Primo 70s have a finesse, a precision, with what’s out of focus giving a real elegance to the visual field. I have to note Maéva Drecq’s work as focus-puller also.

And your lighting setup was chosen to enhance the softness for the faces ?

A.G : To achieve this soft, nuanced light, showing detail without being aggressive, I chose very diffused and/or reflected lighting. The difficulty was combining that with the "point-blank range" aspect mentioned earlier.
We didn’t have a lot of lighting equipment, but we had enough. In some of the really tiny spaces, I always had a small source that we called the "pizza", diffusing in different combinations depending on the scene.
In some of the larger locations, where we had a little more room, or outside, I could use larger sources but still very diffused or reflected to keep that soft look.

The work we did in the grading at Amazing Digital Studios was an important factor in achieving the look. With Frédéric Savoir, the colorist, we optimally exploited the foot of the curve, because that was where the image was situated most of the time. We really took advantage of the capacities of the F65 with the Primo 70 series, getting detail in the blacks, and close-ups, sometimes getting very very close, but without an intrusive harshness : we were able to get in close and still be gentle.

The light is very velvety, for example the ambiance in the bar where Juliette talks with her lover (Xavier Beauvois)...

A.G : We shot at the club Chez Castel, a basement, entirely dark, low ceiling, mirrors all round. We built the whole lighting setup with Boa Ruby Lights, strips of LEDs. That lighting setup helped me out in a lot of situations. I tried them out on the first day, and that test was conclusive.
So in the club, we had a lighting setup which was essentially Boas (plus a custom Chinese lantern) for a seven minute tracking shot with a dolly and dance floor. I added three small yellow tube lights to lift the background.
The Boas were very light, malleable, LED strips, simple to install, easy to control the intensity and color, and very stable. They worked very well, especially with enough diffusion and carefully pleated. I was able to obtain a light that just kissed their skin, the soft, gentle luminescence I was looking for.

What’s interesting about this scene is the perception of time you have watching the film, as the camera moves one to the other...

A.G : Claire always saw this as one tracking shot, from the script stage.
There are a few cuts in the shot as finally edited, but it was shot as one long take. The camera movement from one to the other was intuitive on the set, motivated by the dialogue, giving me free choice of in and out on each character. As we repeated takes, we refined the movement, amplified the moves, we pushed the idea further. The first day we also had a tracking shot in the nightclub, with the BOAS once more.

,In almost all Claire’s films there’s a scene of dancing. Often shot handheld. In this film, there’s not a single handheld shot. The improvisation was all with the dolly. François Tille, my key grip, followed my moves, and I followed his, we planned it out to some extent in advance, and we have a very strong collaboration, which really worked for us here, through the takes for the whole Etta James song, as we pushed the idea further and further, to the rhythm of the music and the actors.

The lighting of the very long final scene is part of the message of the film - it "illuminates" the title of the film.

A.G : We only had a day to shoot this 17 minute interchange. Claire asked me to design the light in the window behind Gérard Depardieu as if it were alive, lighting and warming Juliette.
So we had a change in the lighting level and color occurring during these 17 minute takes. We used powerful controllable LED lights in the orange-curtained window, with a control panel.
We shot the whole take for each camera angle, with the camera on a dolly moving back and forth on a slightly curved path.
Gérard was using an earpiece. His coach was reading him his lines. Is that perhaps why he speaks with this rhythm, this focused slowness, this strangely magnetic presence ?

The changes in the lighting inevitably had an empirical structure, dependent on how they played the scene. Different takes from each camera angle were used in the edit, in this 15-minute face-to-face encounter, this somewhat startling pair, and the final credits roll over half of the scene.
Obviously, we made full use of the possibilities of grading in 4K, to handle the evolution of the light in this scene. I have to credit the accurate, precise, delicate work of Frédéric Savoir, and his commitment and availability for this project.

A film in a new register, bursting with words, shot very fast, point-blank range. I really like it.
The most difficult thing for me was striking the right balance, in this radical work.

(Interview conducted by Brigitte Barbier, for the AFC. Thanks to Lucy Allwood for the translation from French)