Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” takes its unusual title from a wrenching 10-minute scene that unfolds toward the middle of the film, during which its pregnant 17-year-old protagonist — after stealing away from her rusty Pennsylvania hometown with only her cousin, a small amount of cash, and a haphazard plan to travel out of state for an abortion without her parents’ knowledge or permission — meets with a counselor in the small back room of a Manhattan women’s clinic. Sleepless and swollen-eyed, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) sits down in close-up against an antiseptic white backdrop and stares just off camera as she shudders through the counselor’s gentle interrogation of her sexual history.
The interview is bracingly intimate from the moment it begins, but Hittman shifts into an even more harrowing register when the counselor starts asking Autumn a series of multiple-choice questions about any potential abuse she may have suffered. “In the past year, your partner has refused to wear a condom: Never, rarely, sometimes, always? Your partner tries to get you pregnant when you don’t want to be: Never, rarely, sometimes, always?”
The scene — once punctured by a handful of cutaways to let some air in — seals off those breathing holes and locks into a single take for the rest of its length as Autumn’s unspoken pain finally surfaces for oxygen. She looks down at the floor as her eyes flicker with hurt, but the camera never blinks. In fact, it’s as if the camera almost ceases to exist. It’s neither static in a way that affects a posture of objectivity, nor shaky in a way that needlessly ornaments a moment of profound emotional unrest. The camera is tender enough for you to feel the softness of a human touch, but also so attuned to the emotional immediacy of Flanigan’s performance that you never think about the person holding it.
This is the invisible genius of Hélène Louvart, who’s become one of the world’s most sought-after cinematographers — and, by her own admission, Hittman’s closest on-set collaborator — because of her unique ability to flatten the distance between image and viewer until it feels as if we’re looking at a character through the same lens they use to see themselves.
Were her signature touch not designed to go unnoticed, it would be easy to see Louvart’s subtle fingerprints on some of the best films of the last 20 years, as her peerlessly diverse list of credits ranges from meta-docs like Wim Wenders’ “Pina,” Agnès Varda’s “The Beaches of Agnès,” and Claire Denis’ “Towards Mathilde” to sensitive works of fiction as far-ranging as Karim Aïnouz’s “Invisible Life,” Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night,” Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Maya,” Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir’s “When I Saw You,” three films by Alice Rohrwacher, and even one by provocateur Larry Clark.
Louvart has shot movies in at least seven different languages (some of which she does not speak herself), and infused them all with a common sense of truth. She is, in a sense, a universal translator of light, and if her name isn’t as familiar as those of male contemporaries like Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki, Louvart seems happy to remain slightly out of focus. “I prefer to stay invisible,” the cinematographer said via Zoom from her Paris apartment. “What I like so much about my work is that I get to help someone tell a story — I am here to understand it through the frame.”
For several filmmakers, Louvart’s help has proven so invaluable that they won’t make anything without it. Hittman, who referred to the cinematographer as “her closest ally on set,” was first compelled to reach out to Louvart after seeing Rohrwacher’s “Corpo Celeste.” “I was so struck by the sophistication of that film and the naturalism of the intuitive camerawork,” she recalled. “It was through Alice’s work that I fell in love with both of them as artists… [the films they make together] are so immersive and alive and spontaneous — there’s always a new experience that I have while watching them.”
Although initially doubtful that Louvart would agree to shoot 2017’s “Beach Rats” (“I had sort of assumed that she would be somebody who worked strictly in the European system”), Hittman soon came to understand that Louvart is happy to go wherever honest work takes her. “Hélène is interested in films that come from authentic places and authentic intentions,” Hittman said. “I don’t see her being interested in shooting a Marvel movie.”
Be sure to check out our exclusive video essays, focusing on Hittman, Louvart, and their body of work below.
The grounded and spartan “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is just about the furthest thing from a Marvel movie, and there was never any question that Louvart would shoot it. Hittman reconnected with the cinematographer at a Los Angeles coffee shop after the Indie Spirit Awards ceremony where Louvart was nominated for “Beach Rats,” and told her that she was interested in making a film about a journey to New York: “An Odyssey about a young woman trying to reclaim her body.”
From that point on, Louvart was so inextricably entwined with the project that she was even involved in casting. She affirmed Hittman’s interest in Flanigan, and even joined the two on an unusual audition that found them darting around the Lower East Side as Louvart filmed the exercise like a documentary. “It was a way of seeing what it was like for us all to work together,” Hittman said. “That was important.” It allowed Louvart to see “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” from the inside out, and become such an endemic part of the movie (and its characters) that it could later seem as if she weren’t there at all.
A few months later, Louvart found herself trying to disappear inside a tiny room with Flanigan, a boom operator, and the actress playing the counselor as Hittman watched the pivotal scene of her latest film on a monitor in the hallway. “I was not on a tripod because I had to adjust myself like this,” Louvart said as she pantomimed curling her body into a shell. “[Sidney] had to forget about me. It was like there was a line of ice between Autumn and the other woman, and if you moved you broke that line. I didn’t want to disturb her, but it was so deep that I have to say it was difficult to stay cold and invisible without reacting. But it’s my job. I have to do this.”
It’s easy to imagine how Louvart’s invisibility — the comfort of her closeness, and the protective bubble it provides — would be a tremendous boon to first-time actors like Flanigan (the kind that Hittman herself also has such a way with), that it might preserve their vulnerability without forcing it through the pressure that comes with having to hold a movie frame.
“Hélène knew at a script phase what I wanted to achieve with that scene,” Hittman said. “I wanted to set up the cameras like an interrogation, and to sort of trap the actor in the moment. I wanted it to be honest. I wanted to bring the audience — particularly a male audience — into the intensity of that kind of questionnaire. Hélène understands that the point-of-view is incredibly important to the film grammar in the story, and we have a shorthand of how I construct first-person narratives. I think a lot of people want to categorize the film as being some extension of vérité, but the truth is that there’s no presence of a cameraperson on screen. We don’t feel Hélène documenting.”
That’s often because Louvart uses her own custom rig to create a free-floating movement that feels neither handheld nor on sticks. For Hittman, the rig “allows the camera to breathe without feeling the footsteps of the cameraperson behind it,” but the contraption is merely an extension of the natural talents that Louvart brings to the table. “Hélène is an intuitive and fluid operator,” Hittman said, “and that’s part of the appeal of working with her. She’s so connected to the story and she knows how to move her own body in a way to find positions where you don’t sense her presence behind the camera.”
In this particular scene, the confined space demanded that Louvart achieve that effect by more conventional means, and that she do so without stripping away Autumn’s point of view or imposing an exterior sense of emotion. “We didn’t want to do something too sad-ish,” Louvart said. “[The situation] is already sad, and we didn’t want to get an atmosphere that’s too realistic with the harsh light of the medical offices.”
They also didn’t want to go too far in the other direction and undercut the scene’s human drama with any obvious degree of artifice, as Hittman’s stated goal was to make an honest image — to forge a look that’s even less affected than the dreamy chiaroscuro of “Beach Rats.” Burnt out by the color-drenched films that tend to be made about teenagers (“Why does every movie about young people feel like it takes place in a nightclub from beginning to end? It’s almost as if they’re using color to hide truth”), Hittman strove to create something “that is true, and shows us what we know but don’t want to acknowledge about our world. Not just an image, but an image that is just,” she said with a tip of the cap to Jean-Luc Godard.
The solution that Hittman and Louvart devised for the sequence from which “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” takes its title found them eschewing ultra-realism in favor of a more personal truth. “We said ‘Okay, we have to go slightly over reality,’” Louvart remembered, “‘and to keep a sort of distance and intimacy for the body.’ So [the way we shot it] was a way to lift things up.”
They used two cameras — one on a tripod directly in front of Flanigan, and the other in Louvart’s hands at a three-quarter view — each of them lending Flanigan a soft patina of 16mm sympathy that helps cocoon the scene within the ineffably human space that exists somewhere between vérité and exploitation (even as the image vibrates with the anxiety of shooting for the full length of a film can, an almost subliminal feeling that Louvart was hoping to achieve when she pressed Hittman to stretch the scene out during pre-production). The ultimate effect is like watching Autumn look at herself in the mirror. The longer that crucial shot is held, the more it feels as if we’re simultaneously looking both at Flanigan’s eyes and also through them.
Even some of the most powerful and unflinching films about abortion have lacked that sense of female interiority, or lost sight of it amidst the blinding glare of the camera’s gaze. On the contrary, it’s so palpable in “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” because the director, her cinematographer, and their cast are all trying to express the same thing from different perspectives.
Hittman and Louvart talk about the script at such great lengths before shooting begins that the technical questions seem to answer themselves on set, and the camera is fluently able to translate the full intention of the story that’s passing through it. “If you are exactly with the character and the mood of the moment” Louvart said, “it means the camera is a way to see and to show them also through the eyes of the director. If you are really on the same page, it doesn’t change how you shoot.”
Hittman agreed: “The characters in the movie have this unspoken back and forth communication, and in some ways so do Hélène and I. Some people on a location scout might say to me ‘That room looks too small, are you sure you want to shoot in there?’ For me, a small room means that it’s just me and Hélène and the sound, and that’s perfect. I think we sort of thrive working in these intimate spaces together.”
And for a filmmaker whose films depend on carving out such intimate spaces, meeting someone like Louvart has made all the difference. “It’s truly been a joy to know her,” Hittman said. “I’m sure that Alice [Rohrwacher] would agree with me, that knowing Hélène has changed our lives.”
Louvart may prefer to remain invisible, but once you know where to look, her impact is impossible to ignore. —David Ehrlich