Agnès Godard—very arguably the pre-eminent French DP of her generation— began working with the French Swiss director Ursula Meier with her acclaimed 2008 feature debut, Home. As lensed by Godard, the deceptively simple story, starring Isabelle Huppert, takes on the enchanted air of a modern-day fable. Their working relationship has continued to this day, and now encompasses two more enigmatic, compelling features written and directed by Meier—2012’s Sister, which lays its scene at a posh ski resort in the snowy, scenic Swiss Alps, and stars a young Léa Seydoux; and their latest collaborative effort, The Line, opening with a rhapsodic four-minute slow-motion set piece—as well as the shorts Quiet Mujo (2014) and Kacey Mottet Klein, Birth of an Actor (2015). Speaking over Zoom to Olivia Cooper-Hadjian, the two talents reflect warmly on their 15-year working relationship, sharing personal memories, insights, and surprises. Their conversation has been translated from the French by Melanie Scheiner.
OLIVIA COOPER-HADJIAN: At what moment in the process of a film’s conception does your collaboration begin?
URSULA MEIER: I know I have a film when I’ve found consistency between content and form. The locations become mental spaces. Given the crucial importance of the landscape, Agnès is involved as early as the location scouting. In fact, it was Agnès who convinced me that the distance of 200 meters in the script of The Line wasn’t working, whereas at 100 meters we can clearly see the house, and so the frustration of not being able to access it is even stronger. This also raised some interesting questions: how to represent 100 meters, with which focal length?
I had made a very naïve sketch of the location that I kept with me while writing the script, and Agnès had imagined it in a completely different way. My references were more American. I imagined a really large road, I had Jeff Wall’s photographs in mind, an artist I really like. We looked for such a road in all of Switzerland, to no avail, and from that point on we approached the set design differently: we decided to find a house and see which spaces existed within a 100-meter radius of it. It was a funny way to scout, we had to almost warp our view. We were like two surveyors walking in the field and counting our steps. Of course, the canal offered an interesting natural border. Generally, I also work a lot with photography while writing. Those then become images I transmit to Agnès. There were particularly a lot for Home. Things like a light, an orange sweater, a little square window. They all make sense in relation to the film. I also kept an index of different sounds of highway traffic that I listened to according to where I was at in the script, to help me fabricate the images.
The Line (2022)
AGNÈS GODARD: The three films tell a story that could only exist in the sites where they unfold. For Home, the set grew out of a barren location. For The Line, it was the opposite: everything was there, but we had to appropriate each element little by little in order to make a whole, in order for the story to emerge from this place. I found this incredible, since the first time we discovered the location, we saw its banality more than anything. But from the moment we were able to start filming in Scope, it made it possible for the elements of the set to come to life. For Sister, about a year before filming, Ursula invited me to spend a week in the selected locations, so I could discover the “top” and the “bottom.” Generally, in each instance we’ve been fortunate to have time to prepare.
UM: The more I write, the more I dig into a territory to arrive at the skeletal structure of the film, which corresponds to its topography. In Sister it came down to the cable of a ski lift, like a sort of umbilical cord. The Line was the most demanding in terms of work because when we enter the set, we don’t see the location. We had to start fantasizing about it and give it an appeal it didn’t initially have. The film corresponds to the wager of grasping to this line, both dramatically and visually.
OCH: The shift from interior to exterior is very important in the dramaturgy of your films; to what extent do you also select locations based on their natural light?
AG: Light is definitely a consideration when we choose a location. But for Home, even in the exteriors, we weren’t looking for naturalism, and rather wanted to translate the improbability of a family living here. Whereas the setting of The Line, nestled in the valley, had its own colors, its own light, that we needed to work with. It was a winter film. The location needed to have a strong visual structure but be less present as a set. I wanted it to leave room for all the other dimensions. It was a very conflicted film, and I told myself that we needed to not feel the weight of the sky too heavily on the backs of the characters, that’s why we needed this transparency.
UM: It’s true that the sun moved behind the mountain very early in the day. For Sister, I took the setting that I knew as a point of departure, and we needed to take the film in the direction of a fairy tale, to detach from realism and move toward the fable. We worked with pretty surprising colors for the bottom, like blue lights, to add an element of wonder. Conversely, the top of a ski resort is normally associated with the sun and the beauty of the landscape, but we actually show its underside. It’s only at the end of the film that we see the peaks of the mountains and it can breathe. The path is marked within the resort, whereas below the child invents his own route, crosses roads...
Each film has its own story. For Home, we couldn’t access the location earlier than the night before filming, but we had already done a lot of work together on a shot list on paper that helped us, but which we sometimes veered from. The set raised the question of camera placement in a particularly salient way: which side of the road were we going to film on?
AG: Each time there’s been a preparatory period of shot-listing, which is a basis for collaborative work, but it’s not a storyboard and it’s not definitive. Either it works when we do the blocking, or we must readjust, but it’s a point of departure that orients the angles of attack.
UM: We have passionate discussions about camera placement. Regarding the shot at the end of Home where Isabelle Huppert exits the house, you told me: “It’s like a birth, it’s seen from the outside.” It’s true, this film is a renaissance story.
OCH: You mentioned the short days in the location where The Line was filmed, however the film is precisely full of beautiful night scenes, with rich black tones.
The Line (2022)
AG: For these scenes, the challenge was to find where to place the light. We finally found a place to rig a platform and we also used the buildings’ rooftops. But we also made the decision to replace the bulbs in the streetlights along the road. Initially, they were sodium bulbs, which emit a yellow light. I thought it would be too heavy. We had them replaced along a 300-meter stretch with whiter light bulbs to experiment with the shadows. I also chose the Sony Venice camera for the quality of its sensor, which would allow it to handle the darkness well, and I chose the lenses based on this challenge. I really enjoyed doing that. It’s a dream to be able to see in the dark when you capture the image of a film.
UM: With Sister, I also had the privilege of working with Agnès on her first digitally shot film. Cameras weren’t as advanced ten years ago as they are today. It was exciting to be with her at that moment, with the technical questions that almost bordered on the philosophical. She would tell me: “We’re passing from the grain of celluloid to 0s and 1s!” We sometimes felt like mathematicians… We also encountered stray colors in the blues. Her first digital film was a baptism by fire: she needed to film the snow, the white.
AG: The recording formats today aren’t what they used to be, such as being able to film in RAW. It raised plenty of questions, the infrareds… It was pretty worrying. With The Line, the perfecting of the camera’s sensors allowed us to explore the porosity of the color black. It was the opposite. It’s enjoyable to have to seek a solution and to not do the same thing twice. What’s great with Ursula is that there’s always been this time for entering into the universe of the film, to appropriate it for oneself.
UM: The script is the visible part of the iceberg, but the part that is submerged—that’s what’s the strongest, the most nourished, unconscious, and intuitive, where there is a crazy desire. To transmit that to one’s collaborators is the most complex thing there is. By a certain point, Agnès needs to be as impregnated as I am by the film, by its underlying structure. It’s almost the same with the actors.
What’s great with Ursula is that there’s always been this time for entering into the universe of the film, to appropriate it for oneself
AG: This brings the possibility of making suggestions, at the moment when finding the image of the film is to participate in its narration. That’s where a genuine collaboration can take place. That’s what I love about this job, more than the technical questions, even if they represent an important aspect of the work. Participating in the construction of the film is really exhilarating.
UM: When writing, I have the impression that there are images swarming in my unconscious, and photography sometimes allows me to reveal these mental images and to give them some form. Agnès is almost a midwife. She enables me to give form to images that have yet to be revealed. It’s strange, I always had the sense that they already exist, but I have to find them.
OCH: It’s as though more than one person is needed for the image to come into being.
UM: Exactly. Sometimes Agnès shows me something and I say, “Voila, that’s exactly it.” It takes an outside person to draw out the images within us.
AG: It also provokes a chain reaction: one idea brings forth another, which brings forth another. Everything counts in an image. All the ingredients need to be assembled to then leave room for the actors who will bring them to life. It’s funny to see them evolve in these places that were shaped beforehand, to see how they act according to this universe, and how they make it move.
Olivia Cooper-Hadjian is a film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma. She also works as a programmer for Cinéma du Réel and for the platform Tënk.
Melanie Scheiner is a French-American writer, translator, and independent curator based in Paris. In 2024, she will appear in Sofia Bohdanowicz’s forthcoming feature film, Opus 28.