Vet new wave directors surf digital technology

Varda, Godard, Rohmer explore other cinematic possibilities

PARIS — The spirit of the French New Wave is alive and well and living in the digital camera.

Agnes Varda’s guerrilla-style documentary “Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse” (The Gleaners and I) (2000), Jean-Luc Godard’s absurdist “L’Eloge de l’Amour” (2001) and now Eric Rohmer’s “L’Anglaise et le Duc” (2001), a drama set during the French revolution, are all either totally or partly shot in digital. It’s a logical extension for filmmakers who cut their teeth as critics on French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema (Varda is the exception), and have always jumped at the chance to extend their cinematic lexicon.

Rohmer’s “L’Anglaise et le Duc” will premier at the Venice film festival on Sept. 7, the same day he’ll pick up the fest’s Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. To tell his tale of a Scottish lady stranded in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, the 81-year-old director ended up mixing his special effects, both old and new.

He used encrustation, a process as old as cinema itself, he says, whereby actors are grafted onto a background of paintings faithful to the topography of the era.

“I’d already made two period films: ‘La Marquise d’O,’ which was shot on location, and ‘Perceval le Gallois,’ which was filmed entirely in the studio. Neither of these methods proved the right one to portray an authentic picture of Paris,” Rohmer says.

French artist Jean-Baptist Marot, working alongside Rohmer, spent three years painting a tableaux that realistically captured the backdrop of revolutionary Paris. To maintain the quality of the image in the encrustation process, Rohmer shot his actors in digital against a plain blue screen and then grafted them onto the painted tableaux.

“There was a quest for authenticity at the heart of this film,” he says. “It was not just a case of being meticulous.”

For 73-year-old helmer Varda, who shot to prominence at the very outset of the French New Wave with 1954’s “La Pointe Courte,” a digital camera (in this case a mini-DV) gave her the kind of freedom she needed in her depiction of French street life in “The Gleaners and I.”

“For some of the people I approached, I needed to be alone to start with, to have my camera in my pocket or bag,” she says. “I needed to make myself so simple, so quick, sometimes there is no time to go looking for the camera crew.”

The mini-DV also became the perfect tool in what is to some extent a highly personal video diary, Varda says.

“I would never have asked the director of photography to film my hands,” she says. “The relationship between me and the camera had to take place alone.”

And Godard, whose “L’Eloge de l’Amour” will get its U.S. premier at the New York film festival, found digital could serve the nouvelle vague.

In “L’Eloge,” the audience is never quite sure whether the 71-year-old Godard is shooting in 35mm or in video.

Indeed, he could have been speaking for all three directors when he said in a recent interview with Cahiers du Cinema, “I am always interested by everything that is new, simply because there are no rules.”

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