Scene by scene with Hélène Louvart, one of the world’s great cinematographers

As Nezouh enters cinemas, French cinematographer Hélène Louvart shares her behind-the-scenes insights from lining up shots with the likes of Wim Wenders, Agnès Varda and Alice Rohrwacher.

Nezouh (2023), directed by Soudade Kaadan and shot by Hélène LouvartNezouh Ltd/BFI/Film4

French cinematographer Hélène Louvart has shot many of the most visually striking films of the past few decades. From working with legends such as Wim Wenders, Agnès Varda and Mia Hansen-Løve, to early-career collaborations with emerging directors – Maggie Gyllenhaal, Eliza Hittman, Alice Rohrwacher – Louvart’s back catalogue is full of distinctive, visually striking work which spans many styles and formats, from analogue to high definition 3D.

This May, two Louvart films will arrive in UK cinemas, which between them demonstrate the breadth of her style. Alice Rohrwacher’s La chimera, which marks the fifth collaboration between Louvart and the Italian director, weaves together a lush patchwork of 16mm and 35mm to create a characteristically textured portrait of a 1980s Tuscany shaped by mythology and magic. 

Louvart’s work on Soudade Kaadan’s Nezouh also draws out the strange and fantastical behind the everyday, charting life in war-torn Damascus from the sometimes dreamlike perspective of an 11-year-old girl, as she shelters with her family in the apartment her father refuses to abandon.

For this piece, we spoke to Louvart about her career so far, charting the course of her work through key scenes from across her filmography.

The Beach of Agnès (2008)

Director: Agnès Varda

Filmmaker and photographer Agnès Varda reflects on her life. In this sequence, she moves the office of her production company Ciné Tamaris onto the streets of Paris, which she has turned into a temporary beach with sand and wooden seagulls.

Sequence from The Beach of Agnès (2008) in which director Agnès Varda moves the offices of her production company out onto a temporary beach on the streets of Paris.
The Beach of Agnès (2008)
Agnès Varda / Cine Tamaris

This scene is so playful…

Louvart: It appears very easy, but in fact it was so complicated. We had two days, and it was during the weekend, because you had to block the street first, and afterwards bring all the sand. We had to bring all the stuff from the office, and all the people who you see are part of the office at Ciné Tamaris. They had to agree to be in their swimsuits like this. 

With Agnès, you do things in a lively way, but at the same time everything was so prepared. You imagine how long it took for us to hang all these birds. Then there’s the rain; I don’t remember for sure but I think it was fake rain. Everything was mise-en-scène. This film was a documentary, but in fact it was not a documentary. When we created the courtyard of Agnès’s apartment, we were in a studio. Here you can see the butterfly, 12 x 12 feet with this light fabric, which we used for the light. Agnès doesn’t want to lie and hide the process. Agnès preps a lot but at the same time she has this humour, she likes to make a joke.

Was it intimidating at all to work with Agnès Varda? She began her career as a photographer so she must have been very conscious of how things look and should be framed?

Louvart: It was challenging of course, but I met her many years before, because she saw a film that I worked on and afterwards she became friends with the director. I used to see her sometimes. She called me for her previous film before this, but I was not available. Then for The Beaches of Agnès I was available. She was a very good still photographer, she was very precise with the frame, but at the same time, if she knows that I am doing my best, it’s OK. If I made a mistake, panning too fast or too slow, she could understand it, because she was also a photographer. Perhaps she had made these mistakes herself, and this was something she could understand. I think the only thing that was very important to her was to work. We had a very good relationship because we worked a lot together, she was a very wonderful person.

Pina (2011)

Director: Wim Wenders

A documentary about German choreography Pina Bausch and her dance company. In this sequence, a man performs an energetic dance sequence outside on a cliff edge, which culminates with him throwing himself up a rocky hill. The sequence melts into a dance performance on stage, in which dancers throw water at one another.

Sequence from Wim Wenders’ 2011 dance film Pina in which a man dances near a cliff edge, then runs up a rocky hill before the scene changes to a dance performance on stage, in which dancers throw water at one another.
Pina (2011)

Was this the first time you had shot in 3D?

Louvart: Yes. At the beginning I didn’t know anything, so I had to understand how it works. I learned a lot. First you have to be brighter, whether you shoot inside or outside, because you have this system of mirrors. You have these two cameras always side by side – when it’s a wider shot you have to move up and down with a mirror in between. Here, in the first sequence outside, what you see is a Steadicam. I couldn’t do it by myself, because the 3D cameras, two side by side, were too heavy. You cannot do handheld, it’s impossible. Perhaps because it’s heavier, it’s not fluid Steadicam, it feels more organic. 

When we were inside – again because the camera was heavy – I was panning, tilting down and tilting up. When you shoot people dancing, framing wise, it’s the best. You have to follow what they are doing, you cannot anticipate, but at the same time you cannot be late. You have to concentrate, you have to try and be the same as the dancers. Of course, with Wim, we learned perfectly all the dances, but at the same time you have to not anticipate and not be late. You have to dance with them, to dance with your brain, even if you don’t move your body.

It feels like you’re dancing with them, the way you move with the performers.

Louvart: Yes, and for example, if they do a lift or if they go down like here, quickly, if you are late it’s not good. You lose the moment, you lose the way they touch the ground. You have to be with them, so I think it is an incredible exercise when you frame.

Did it take a lot of takes to get these scenes?

Louvart: When we were outside we didn’t do a lot of takes, because it was tiring for the dancer. Here we did four or five takes, perhaps even less. When we were on stage it was different because sometimes we would change our way of shooting. We would say “at this moment we should move back”, or “at this moment we should stay wide.” That meant we had to do it many times, but it was OK because the dancers do it the same every time. I knew exactly where they would go down, where they would do a lift. 

For safety reasons we had to be very careful, because the dancers couldn’t always see us with the stage lights and they run very quickly, so they must not bump into us. So we had to be very precise, almost second by second. At this moment we have to move closer, at this moment we have to move back. Voila, it’s a bizarre way of working!

Beach Rats (2017)

Director: Eliza Hittman

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a teenage boy living on the outskirts of Brooklyn during a long aimless summer. He is secretly attracted to men, but unable to express these feelings among his macho friends. One night, he travels to meet a man he has encountered online. They walk together into the woods and have sex.

Sequence at night from Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (2017) in which Frankie (Harris Dickinson) meets a man he has encountered online. They walk together into the woods and have sex, before the film cuts to a shot of the sea.
Beach Rats (2017)

What you immediately notice about this sequence is how dark it is. We only see glimpses of what’s happening, it’s so intimate. It must have been challenging capturing this darkness on 16mm?

Louvart: Of course, this scene was a nightmare! It was my first collaboration with Eliza. We wanted to shoot on Super 16. It was a low budget film, and when we did the location scouting a few months before, we went to see the place during the day. Then later we came back at night and it was very dark, we could see nothing. That serves a purpose in real life, because you can meet somebody and nobody will see you. If we had street lights, it wouldn’t work in real life. But 16mm is not great for the night. When I went with Eliza, she got her cell phone light just to try and see something, but we saw nothing. The place was black. It’s clear if we brought a cherry picker to make fake moonlight it wouldn’t work, because the character would never follow the guy if it’s too bright. The scene would make no sense if we had light.

At the same time we couldn’t spend all night shooting under exposed; it would be better to stay at home and shoot a black screen. What we decided, was to light them, perhaps with something frontal. A frontal light also reflects the feeling of being trapped; Frankie’s unease, that he doesn’t feel very comfortable in the situation. At the same time we didn’t try to present nice bodies. We have the body as it is. It’s not harsh, it’s not pretty, it’s like it is. It’s not a flash, the shadows aren’t too hard. It’s a soft light behind the camera. 

It was all handheld Super 16, so I had to see them through the eyepiece. I didn’t see much, and for Eliza it was even worse because she could see nothing. With Super 16, if it’s underexposed, for the director that’s a catastrophe. She was behind me, she was close to me, and this way she could see them and she could guide me, telling me when to move down, to move up. We didn’t have any other choice, with 16mm in the darkness, what can you do?

Is that also why the camera moves in and out of focus, because you couldn’t see? It wasn’t a deliberate creative choice?

Louvart: It’s like this because the focus puller was trying to see what we were doing. I remember we did it two or three times perhaps, and the focus puller tried to do his best, I tried to do my best! It was even worse for Eliza. Of course, we did some tests, to see if we could see something or not. If we didn’t see anything, it would suggest we were too shy, that we didn’t want to speak about the reality. We had to see something. Eliza wanted to tell the story, and if you are too dark you don’t tell the story, you escape it. 

It’s fine – you know when I see it now, I say ooh la la! I don’t think we would be able to do something like this again, it was crazy! Eliza did it without watching the monitor, she did it with her eyes. She said “let’s go, don’t be afraid, we have to trust what we are doing.” And because afterwards it was very well edited, it works. But now I see it was scary, it was a big risk.

Happy as Lazzaro (2018)

Director: Alice Rohrwacher

In the remote Italian countryside, the simple and contented young labourer Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) lives a quiet life as part of a community of sharecroppers. One day he falls off a cliff and is unconscious for a long time. A wolf finds Lazzaro and he slowly wakes up in the bright sunlight, before walking back to his now deserted village.  

Sequence from Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro (2018) in which young labourer Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) wakes from unconsciousness into bright sunlight, having fallen off a cliff. He then walks back to his now deserted village. 
Happy as Lazzaro (2018)

This is also 16mm, but the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of style. Here you have this lens flare and the over exposure with the sunlight. Can you talk a little about the stylistic choices that went into shaping this?

Louvart: In the story we are following this boy, when suddenly he falls from the cliff. We don’t know exactly who he is, but we understand later that perhaps he is not exactly like a human being, perhaps he is a religious figure. We don’t know exactly. Other humans can’t see that he is special, but animals can. It was important, that when he wakes up it is not to a strong sun. The sun here is a kind of divine light, it has religious connotations, but at the same time we didn’t want to be too obvious. We were trying to get a relationship between the sun and Lazzaro. He doesn’t put his hand over his eyes because it hurts, it’s more elegant than that. We used the exposed feeling of the sun to make you feel that he has this specialness. It was very important for this sequence that we are with him, we are slightly lazy in the movement and at the same time we kind of wake up with him. We pan down, we move up – it’s a subtle movement, as if we didn’t want to wake him up.

What is it like to work with Alice Rohrwacher?

Louvart: I’ve been working together with her since her first film. We were very close, we spoke a lot about the story and what we want. She is somebody who doesn’t want to be too precise technically. For her, it’s more about creating an atmosphere. That’s very important. It’s totally another way to work, but all the time we come from the story. I understand her because we are so close to the story. 

At the same time, we don’t want to do the same things that we’ve done before. We have this agreement always to do something different. If you look at her new films and her old films, there is a big difference in the way they are shot. But it is still the same Alice and the same Hélène. All the time we push – I push her and she pushes me – and when we feel that we’ve done it already we have to find something else, another way to do it.

Nezouh (2023)

Director: Soudade Kaadan

Despite mounting danger posed by war, Motaz (Samir al-Masri) refuses to let his wife Hala (Kinda Alloush) and daughter Zeina (Hala Zein) evacuate their beloved Damascus apartment. When a bomb suddenly blows a hole in the apartment’s ceiling, the family run down the stairs into the white bright light of the deserted streets.

Sequence from Soudade Kaadan’s Nezouh in which a bomb suddenly blows a hole in the ceiling of the Damascus apartment where Motaz (Samir al-Masri) lives with his wife Hala (Kinda Alloush) and daughter Zeina (Hala Zein), refusing to evacuate. The family run down the stairs into the white bright light of the deserted streets.
Nezouh (2023)
Nezouh Ltd/BFI/Film4

What stage did you start work on Nezouh?

Helene Louvart: I met Soudade for her previous film. I was not available to work with her, but we became friends, so when it came to her second feature film she called me. It was during Covid and we prepped a lot together. We spoke about the shot list, she was very precise and knew exactly what she wanted to do. The story is a realistic situation, but at the same time she wanted to bring some poetry to it, with the point of view of the 11-year-old girl. 

It was very important for me to try to understand what she wanted, how much time we would need for it, what the gear would be, and if we found that it was too complicated, how to change it. When we met in Turkey to shoot, we had to see how we could do it again if we had to change it. But in fact, we did almost exactly what Soudade had in mind, because it was so precise and it was very clear.

Is it unusual for a director to be so precise about what they want?

Louvart: No, except sometimes with some people it’s more in their mind, and I have to try to understand what they want. They know already, but I have to help them to translate it. With Soudade, she knew what she wanted and she had already translated it technically. I was just here to see if it was doable, and which gear we might want. I had the feeling that we could speak almost on the same level and I was just here to help her. Everybody’s different, of course. Everybody has a way to see the scene, they might need more help from the beginning. But with Soudade she knew already the way to do it technically.

What was the technical execution that you brought to the table? What was the setup for shooting this film?

Louvart: The set up had two different points of view. There was the point of view of the girl (Zeina), and another point of view. It’s not quite Soudade’s point of view, but rather the film’s, which gives it a sort of poetry. For Zeina, it’s really her gaze; we see how she is looking. Sometimes we are more far to the side, so for example when we look through the window and pan outside. It’s not the girl’s real point of view, because otherwise she would fall into the street. It’s the film’s perspective, because nobody would actually be able to go outside like this. This poetry lifts the story.

It was important for Soudade to be realistic, because this is happening, the bombing and everything. But at the same time it’s not a documentary, which means she wants to give it something else. Not a cheesy feeling, like it’s idealised. This scene here is a really bad moment for the family. But she wanted to involve the audience in moments of poetry; to bring some movement and some magic.

What is really interesting about this scene is the way that it highlights the contrast between the dark interior of the apartment and the white light of the world outside.

Louvart: The film starts with darkness, with a candle. We don’t know if it’s still night, the shutters are closed, and the light from the sun is struggling to come through the window because everything is shut down. And then there’s the sudden moment of the bombing, it’s like an explosion of light. As they run outside they are blinded, because it’s so bright and their eyes are not used to it anymore because they have spent so many days with candles, in this darkness. It was very important in this moment to have this over-exposure, and the feeling that it’s a harsh moment but at the same time they are out of the apartment and there’s a sort of freedom too. Of course, afterwards they have to go back, because it’s not paradise, but from the perspective of the girl, they’re free. And when she goes back, she can see the sky. We wanted to have this big moment of difference, and it’s linked with the story and what is written in the script.

The title Nezouh is to do with displacement, it can refer to the displacement of people but also the displacement of light.

Louvart: Yes and it is also a metaphor for being able to escape. In fact, the story means that they do not escape at this moment, they will go back because the father doesn’t want them to move. When Zeina moves back into the apartment she escapes to the roof. There is this moment during the night, when she is in the bed and the camera tilts upwards, and the camera also escapes. The question is the same: do you stay or do you go?

As that detail suggests, cinematography is very much a storytelling element. It’s not just aesthetic and style, the narrative also comes from the camera.

Louvart: Exactly, it’s narrative and it’s very important because I like to choose the best gear according to the story. For me it is so important, to link with the story. Here the script was already very precise. This theme of escape is important. If you remember at the beginning the sun is trying to come through the shutters, and it’s like a magic world for the girl. She is escaping through her mind. You can escape outside, or you escape in your mind, in your bedroom.

Nezouh, backed by the BFI Filmmaking Fund with National Lottery money, is in cinemas from 3 May.

La chimera is in cinemas from 10 May.