Cinematographer Hélène Louvart’s prolific career doesn’t show signs of slowing

As part of our Tribute Series, FF2 Media celebrates the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

In celebration of the artists who contribute to films through visuals and music, we’re shining the spotlight this week on cinematographer Hélène Louvart. Louvart has served as Director of Photography on over fifty feature films, documentary films, and TV shows. Most recently, her work was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats in 2018. While Louvart has worked with filmmakers like Agnès Varda and Claire Denis, her next project is Chloé Mazlo’s Under Alice’s Sky, which is currently in post-production.

As I’ve been researching Hélène Louvart, I’ve discovered that I grew up with her without knowing it. My parents took me to see Wim Wenders’s dance documentary Pina at IFC in 2011, for which Louvart was the cinematographer. I watched some of her other features in high school French classes. I went to see most of her feature films from the past couple years. She’s had a long and prolific career, and it’s not showing signs of slowing.

Below, I’ll explore moments from three of Louvart’s recent features, all with female writers and/or directors.

Spoiler warning: note that I’ll talk about the overarching plot directions of these movies, though I won’t reveal plot twists or endings. If you don’t know anything about any of these, I’d recommend reading after watching.

Invisible Life (2019)

Sisters Guida (Julia Stockler) and Eurídice (Carol Duarte) dance together in the dreamy garden light. Throughout the film, we’ve seen them living painfully apart, but here, finally, they’re together. This moment isn’t real. It’s a vision that goes through Eurídice’s head during a piano audition. Like the audition, the vision represents a life that could have been.

Invisible Life tells the story of two sisters in a conservative family in Rio de Janeiro. As teenagers, they are very close. When Guida runs away with her boyfriend, her parents reject her, but Eurídice hopes Guida is having a happy adventure. Guida soon returns home, alone and pregnant. At this point, Eurídice is married (a distant and semi-violent relationship, even at the beginning) and living elsewhere. Their parents tell Guida that Eurídice, a talented pianist, has gone to study music in Austria, and at the same time, they keep Guida’s return a secret from Eurídice. With this simple lie, Guida and Eurídice live the rest of their adult lives in the same city, but they never see each other.

The pain and irony of that separation only really exists for the audience, and maybe for the sisters’ mother. She knows they are both near and empathizes with them, but, deferring to her husband’s authority and maybe sharing some of his fear, she never tells the sisters about each other. The visuals of the sisters’ parallel lives form a significant contrast: Eurídice lives in confined luxury, punctuated by painful moments of physical intimacy with her husband, while Guida lives in poverty, but she’s able to go dancing and tend a lush garden with new friends and found family.

In this deeply color-saturated frame where the sisters weave past each other, their eyes are closed or fixed inward. Although it’s a relief for us to finally see them together, in this fantasy, they’re just having light fun, because they’ve been together all along.

Happy as Lazzaro (2018)

Two young boys howl at wolves in the Italian countryside outside the tobacco estate. Lazzaro mentions that he doesn’t know who his parents are, and Tancredi muses that the two of them could easily be half-brothers. The morning following this scene, the laborers chat about the howling, afraid of the wolves’ dominance and worried for Tancredi’s safety. Lazzaro doesn’t say anything about his secret outing.

Inviolata is a tobacco growing estate in Italy, where villagers live and work their whole lives without ever earning any money, because they are constantly in debt to the village owner, the Marchioness de Luna. Easygoing, generous Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), one of the workers, becomes unlikely friends with Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), the Marchioness’s son. Tancredi fakes a kidnapping to escape his mother, and only Lazzaro knows his secret. Police come to help search for Tancredi, and they discover that the estate is run through sharecropping, which is illegal. The estate is disbanded, but that doesn’t save the laborers from poverty and hardship.

The visual plays an essential role in confining the laborers in Inviolata. In the opening scene, families woken in the night are disoriented because they can’t turn the lights on; they have to share a few lightbulbs among several households. They are kept at such a level of need that they literally can’t see. The de Luna house is set high on a hill with a lushly colorful living room in a central tower. When the villagers look up at the house at night, they can see the landowners relaxing in the lit tower room, presiding over their fiefdom.

The remote hillside in this frame is a suspended space where Lazzaro and Tancredi really could be half-brothers, removed from the trappings of class and power that separate them so clearly on the estate. This is probably the loudest we’ve ever heard Lazzaro, who tends to accept others’ commands wordlessly, speaking only to offer to make people coffee. We can still see his sloping shoulders as he howls, evidence of his meekness, but for this moment, the two are together in expressing their frustration.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Autumn hides behind a subway station column while her cousin, Skylar, is kissed by the stranger they met earlier that day. Skylar is enduring this, very reluctantly, because she hopes the stranger will be able to help them get back home. Autumn reaches out a hand, Skylar recognizes it, and they lock fingers secretly.

The two cousins are in New York City together without the knowledge of their parents. Autumn (Sidney Flanagan) needs an abortion and couldn’t access one in their conservative Pennsylvania town, so Skylar (Talia Ryder) came with her to have the procedure in New York. They spend two nights in the city, mostly in train stations or public bathrooms, trying to rest where they can.

The two of them are noticeably quiet, even when they’re together. They never discuss whether Skylar will come with Autumn to the city; it feels like a given. Sometimes, they are quiet because they don’t want to, or know how to, articulate what is happening to them. Their quiet can be sometimes disorienting and sometimes heartbreaking, as we realize that they have made choices or had experiences that we didn’t see.

And yet when Autumn takes Skylar’s hand, their relationship is embodied in this gesture, openly visible to us. It’s her way of letting Skylar know she isn’t alone, maybe even helping to preserve some of her humanity. It’s one of those moments in a movie that I keep coming back to, because it’s so visceral. The interactions between the stranger (Théodore Pellerin) and the girls are so well-written and acted that their complexity is painfully real. I recognize Skylar’s instinctively friendly way of responding to him, and I also know Autumn’s protective coldness. He is an aggressor, but not in a way one can easily articulate. And so when Autumn takes Skylar’s hand, the gesture, and the visual of the gesture, represents all the subtleties of this dynamic, and also represents a tiny bit of protection for Skylar against the whole unspoken dynamic she’s been suffering.

Hélène Louvart’s camera often pauses on the moments of fleeting connection. The found sibling relationships are the centers of these three movies, and it’s a joy to watch these characters explored through Louvart’s eyes.

© Amelie Lasker (5/15/20) FF2 Media

Photo Credits: AF Cinema (Hélène Louvart on the set of Invisible Life); Amazon Studios (Invisible Life); Netflix (Happy as Lazzaro); Focus Features (Never Rarely Sometimes Always). 

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Amelie Lasker
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Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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