“When you start a film, you don’t know if it’s a good choice or not.” An interview with cinematographer Hélène Louvart

Originally published on Film4 / Medium.

Cinematographer Hélène Louvart AFC on the set of Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Photo credit: Angal Field/Focus Features.

Throughout her decades-spanning career (and counting), French cinematographer Hélène Louvart has worked on more than 50 features, including critical gems such as Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro (2018) and María Alche’s A Family Submerged (2018).

With the imminent release of her latest film Rocks, which was made with the support of Film4, we invited the cinematographer for a conversation on Zoom to discuss shooting one of this year’s most vital films…

Could you describe your path to becoming a cinematographer?

After I finished school I went straight to film school (National School Superieure Louis Lumière) because I was interested in working in film, even though my family background was totally different. I didn’t know in what capacity, but gradually I felt like the best choice for me was to be around the camera and the light. It’s a way to be close to the director and also involved in the storytelling. I started to work as a DoP on short films and documentaries all around the world and then step-by-step I made my way into feature films. Since the beginning I’ve always worked as a DoP, I was never an assistant. I just did it without thinking too much.

Given that Rocks was heavily improvised and devised with the collaboration of the actors, what did you know about the story when you came on board and what interested you in telling it?

It was a big challenge! The first time I met Sarah (Gavron, the director) she spoke about the story in terms of atmosphere, feeling, sensation, but she didn’t know exactly how she would shoot it. It was still up in the air.

She said that we had to be very, very flexible and to be able to change in an invisible way to give the girls freedom. We approached it scene by scene, and so I knew what Sarah was aiming for, but we were open to change or surprise or something happening in front of the camera that we had to adapt to. It was a challenge, but everyone was working towards the same goal.

And how did you prepare specifically for that challenge?

We wanted a precise and calm set and for the girls to feel natural, which meant everything was very prepared, all the equipment lists and where the lights had to be.

It’s interesting that you use the word calm, because the main characters are teenage girls, who can bring quite a chaotic energy to set, as well as perhaps being self-conscious, did that alter your approach at all?

Yes, in the classroom with all the girls there was a lot of energy and chatter but it was very important to Sarah not to disturb them or burden them with technical stuff. We tried to remain invisible. Of course they could see us and we weren’t trying to hide ourselves, but it was about letting them take up the space.

In more intimate moments Sarah decided to only have one camera, and make sure there weren’t too many people around, so the girls could be more focused. We had the camera directed straight at their eye-line which I think helped get their attention. We weren’t afraid to be totally in front of them. It was about striking a balance between letting them have fun, but when we had to be up close and frontal, we did it.

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The young cast of Rocks, many of whom were non-actors.

And what was shooting in London like? Were there any particular challenges? And how as a non-Londoner did you familiarise yourself with the space?

Many years ago I shot a documentary in London (Little India directed by Renuka George), so I knew the city, not very well, but almost. And working with an English crew wasn’t all that different. Everyone was very polite and serious. It wasn’t a big or messy set.

I’m interested in whether there were any similarities between your experience on Rocks and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, given they both deal with the struggles of a young woman and are told in very authentic ways?

For me they were total opposites. For Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the crew was smaller and we were very focused on the two (or three) characters and we followed the script in a very precise way, with Eliza Hittman (the director) with only one camera, in Super 16mm. For Rocks, there were many girls, there was a lot of energy, we let them do what they wanted and we were around with two or three cameras, two boom operators, to try and catch these moments.

Would you say you have an aesthetic that’s individual to you? and if so, how would your characterise it?

I try not to have a style. It’s very important to try and do something different with each project. Ultimately it’s the director’s film and each director is different and my job is to try and understand what the director wants. Everyone has their own conception of how to tell a story, how to try and see it, why we are moving or still or doing a tracking shot. Of course I give my opinion, but my job is to try and lead them where they want to go and not to have my own style, because then you can only have one point of view.

Given you’ve had an extensive career, what keeps you motivated and interested in cinematography?

First, the story and the meaning behind the story. And second, the director. All the projects I’ve worked on have been about those two things. When you start a film, you don’t know if it’s a good choice or not, or if it will be a good film or not. Nobody knows! Otherwise it would be too easy doing… Also, it matters to me that the director is sincere with WHY he (or she) wants to do this film.

And does that come down to trusting your instinct?

Yeah. I try to feel it. Some people might fake it, but I think you can feel, when reading the script, if there is something deep in there. It cannot just be another movie, it has to be something else.

I think Rocks falls into that category. Is there anything you’re particularly proud of having achieved with this film?

Definitely I think it’s the moment that Bukky Bakray’s character has a fight with her best friend (Kosar Ali). Bukky was initially quite shy to raise her voice. It’s not easy to start fighting! And with Sarah, we were very close to Bukky with the camera, so it was very intense. And Kosar went out of herself for the scene, and then we panned back to Bukky and then we followed Kosar in the corridor and then we had to be steady and invisible, for her not to see us and not to lose the moment… it was really emotional.

Hélène, thank you so much!

Rocks will be in UK cinemas from 18 September. Watch a brand new clip from the film here

Uniquely crafted by a majority all-female creative team in collaboration with mostly first-time actors, Rocks was written by Theresa Ikoko (winner of the Alfred Fagon award in 2015 for her play Girls) and Claire Wilson (Little Drummer Girl, Gangs of London, The Power), and directed by Sarah Gavron (Suffragette, Brick Lane) and associate director Anu Henriques. Produced by Faye Ward (Wild Rose, Stan & Ollie) and Ameenah Ayub Allen (Ali & Ava, The Selfish Giant), with casting by Lucy Pardee and associate Jessica Straker. The lead cast features Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson, Ruby Stokes, Tawheda Begum, Anastasia Dymitrow, Afi Okaidja and D’angelou Osei Kissiedu.

Review: The Childhood of a Leader

What sounds like a dictator’s pre-pubescent biography transmutes into a tapestry of tales copped from the collective childhood’s of the 20th century’s worst enemies. Borrowing its title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1939 short story, indie actor Brady Corbet’s (Eden, While We’re Young, Melancholia) directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader is a thoroughly art-house affair that will win critic’s affections, but no doubt alienate mainstream audiences. Still, amid Corbet’s predilection for the melodramatic, there is something distressingly original to be unearthed from a filmmaker who, it seems, is just flexing his muscles.

Robert Pattinson might be gracing the covers of The Times and Vanity Fair alongside Corbet in promotion of their festival-feted tour-de-force, but Edward Cullen devotees be warned, his appearances are scant. The real headliner is Tom Sweet, a girlishly striking young actor plucked from obscurity and burdened with carrying the effectiveness of the film on his bony shoulders. His, after all, is the childhood in question. Born to a German mother (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) and an American diplomat father (Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham), aiding President Wilson in the rebuilding of post-WW1 society, Prescott is the fruit of a frost-bitten harvest. All too aware of the wandering eyes and language barriers that afflict the already chilly relations between his parents, Prescott has been raised in an environment where callousness and commands take precedence over compassion. Tracing disobedience which builds to deviance and eventually flourishes into full-blown despotism, The Childhood of a Leader plays like a period We Need To Talk About Kevin, which says enough about the kind of mood you need to be in to watch it.

With ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind.

childhoood-of-a-leader-2015-002-tutorial-two-shotThe film is structured in three acts, each labelled as tantrums and as one might expect, each escalating to have eye-widening ramifications. Boredom, might have something to do with it. Prescott, newly acquainted with his French chateau digs, has yet to make friends and finds reprieve in acting out. Whether it be throwing rocks at Parishioners in the family’s local church or humiliating his French tutor (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) with a series of calculated moves, Prescott discovers – not childish delight – but cold-hearted content in the chaos he is able to create. Status, appearance and religion are that which the family hold dear, something which Prescott recognises and learns how to unsettle early on. This is a child with an uncanny ability to undermine and override adult authority; revealing it to be fragile and performative.

With discipline failing and attempts at ‘befriending’ their child proving futile, Bejo and Cunningham – both efficiently effective in their roles – alternate between acquiescing entirely to their temper-prone spawn, or discussing providing him with a sibling, as if to erase his presence altogether. Though the triptych arc of Childhood is compelling in it’s setup, you can’t help but feel short-shrifted in terms of context and emotional depth. When Prescott’s third and final tantrum rolls around and a hostile environment – on both a personal and historical level – culminates in a dinner party with grave consequences, the explanations, or lack thereof errs on the frustrating side. For a film that projects anything but subtlety, it’s ironically prudish regarding the reasons behind the child’s maniacal tendencies.


A delirious and stylistically salient epilogue infers the result of all this bad behaviour, heavily alluding to World War Two and the appearance of a leader whom made his beliefs devastatingly known. Though the interim period might’ve done with a touch more fleshing out. A bizarre twist of sorts – slash – casting choice (best not to IMDb this one before watching) does nothing to alleviate the air of confusion.

All of this being said, with ferocious singularity, Corbet and his eclectic menagerie of a cast, deliver a potent piece of cinema that will linger in your mind. What begins as a simmering study of childhood malevolence ignites to something much weightier and indeed, timely. Despite its languorous pacing, this is a tightly-wound narrative and Corbet’s is a film that never wastes a single moment. Each glance or exchange is significant and frequently informs a later action.

With a strident score and deft camera movement, Childhood persistently places you on the back foot, making you aware that something sinister is brewing but distinctly not in a position to stop it. You can only look on – through splayed fingers, such are the mounting levels of tension – as the tantrums progress and the consequences worsen. There’s a particular moment, about halfway through, where the camera tracks Prescott from behind as he ascends the stairs to his bedroom; the musical orchestrations mounting and gnawing away at your insides. Prescott enters his bedroom, turns around and promptly slams the door in our face. His is not a perspective we are ever given insight into.

Corbet’s is a handsomely-mounted and atmospheric debut; presented with a decided amount of operatic theatricality. Shot by cinematographer Lol Crawley, who most recently worked on 45 Years, the colour palette of Childhood is a bewitching mixture of foreboding darkness and translucent shafts of light; menacing images occasionally punctured by cherubic beauty. The house meanwhile, is adorned with opulent curtains, through which Prescott makes several entrances and Corbet frequently frames his characters in wide shots, as if you are watching them on stage rather than screen. Interestingly for all the wealth and power tied up in this family, the house ripples with cracked walls and peeling paint, as if signifying postwar dilapidation and the fraying familial relationships. This was an era after all when everything appeared to be unravelling at the seams. (Did I use the word timely already?)


Despite his American background, Corbet’s cast and directorial sensibilities reflect a resume speckled with European influences. Written with his Norwegian partner Mona Fastvold, with whom he also collaborated on The Sleepwalker, a brilliantly unnerving and underrated thriller starring Christopher Abbott, there are semblances of Trier, Haneke, Force Majeure’s Ruben Östlund and Assayas. No doubt absorbed from Corbet’s time spent on their sets. After working for a great many auteurs, it comes as little surprise that with Childhood, Corbet exhibits the makings of a great one.

An Interview With Stephen Fingleton

Originally published on We Are Colony.

I sat down with Stephen Fingleton, BAFTA-nominated director of The Survivalist, and talked all things apocalyptic…

Pitch us your film in one sentence.

The Survivalist is about a man who survived the end of civilisation by any means necessary, who finds his life threatened when two women discover his weakness, which is desire.

Now tell us what is it actually about?

The film’s really about what people are like when you take civilisation out of the equation. Who are we? Because so much of our lives are based on our jobs, our names and the expectations placed upon us. What if you take all of those away and see what’s emergent? If all those hidden desires were at the surface…

“Everyone on-screen is a killer…we’re looking at the effects of that”.

How did you begin in creating the dystopian world of The Survivalist?

I began the film when I heard about “peak oil theory”, which is the idea that fossil fuels go into decline – not when they run out, when production slows – the economy’s need for continual growth will mean there’ll be a huge price spike and eventually it’ll lead to economic collapse and I thought it was fascinating. Our dependency on resources, whether it’s credit, which is just a financial instrument, or fresh water or fossil fuels, lead me to imagine how I would survive in such a circumstance.

The Survivalist is an act of fantasisation. If you look at most post-event films or series like The Walking Dead, to some extent they’re about wish fulfilment. We feel so constrained by our lives and by societal strictures that we like that idea that we could survive by our wits and be ourselves, truly, in a world which is “survival of the fittest”. There’s something exciting about that.

It’s about characters who have lost everyone they’ve ever known and they have been deformed by that process, they’ve had to kill to survive – everyone on-screen is a killer – and we’re looking at the effects of that.

Essentially it’s a suspense film about three characters in close proximity who don’t necessarily trust each other, but who begin to grow closer and that raises interesting questions about who they are and whether civilisation is something we agree upon as a functional way of organising things, or whether it genuinely reflects the kinship, that is in our genes, between us.

What prompted certain stylistic choices, such as the absence of the musical score? Or the use of graphics at the beginning?

Primarily it’s about tension. How do you get an audience invested in what’s going on? In my experience, you treat them as adults and you let them do the investigation, you get them to look for clues, you get them to realise – just as in life – there isn’t a dramatic music cue before a car hits you. I was very interested in not editorialising, not providing the context, because the context isn’t relevant.

There’s very little dialogue – maybe 100 lines – again, you have to investigate the characters to work out what’s happening and hopefully the audience will be a lot more involved if they make that investment. In the first 15 minutes of the film, there’s a single character on-screen and it’s like an induction course – this is going to be the grammar of what we’re doing, this is going to be the journey. When a really interesting story emerges, it exceeds what the audience expects will happen.

The absence of the music came down to the fact this is a world without electricity, therefore music doesn’t really exist. People play acoustic instruments, but why would they do that, because it might attract attention? I do have characters in the film who play music on occasion, in their safe haven, but every time they play that music it reminds you of how much it’s fallen silent. So its presence emphasises its absence.

It also allowed us to focus on the sound design. Almost everything you hear on-screen was re-recorded afterwards. Every rustle of a branch, every creak in the floorboard, every bit of wind. My sound designer Jamie Roden and his team spent a huge amount of time creating that so we could control every element of the audience’s experience. We mixed the film in mono, and we tried to create a very heightened suspension of disbelief, it’s a very interesting experience in that regard. So much of the film is told through sound and because you can’t always tell where it’s coming from, it’s more tense. It’s an aural experience.

One critic has cited that The Survivalist is like “Interstellar Meets Cabin in the Woods”, were there any films, or filmmakers you drew from particularly in the making of this film?

That was my favourite comment. It got it down. It’s an expansive story in a small space.

I’ve always been influenced by Christopher Nolan and his making a micro-budget film and then a bigger film and a bigger film. This is my Memento… it was a twist on the murder-revenge story and The Survivalist is a twist on the Cabin in the Woods story. Typically it’s about a group of people discover a cabin and all is not well or there’s a strange man there. This film is told from that strange man’s perspective.

There are other influences as well, like Robert Zemeckis, who I’m a tremendous fan of. Marty McCann and Marty McFly aren’t so adjacent in terms of how likeable they are, even though they’re from completely different worlds.

And my big influence was Andrei Tarkovsky; a Russian filmmaker whose made some incredible films, including Stalker, which was a science fiction film but not really. It was all about the choices the characters made and I thought that was wonderful. It was so strange and spiritual and where The Survivalist really works as a film are some of its most spiritual moments and the moments I liked most in Tarkovsky are like that as well.

What was the biggest challenge of making this film?

The biggest problem with a lot of films is your cast; if you haven’t cast correctly or had the time and I made a decision in this that I was going to cast it right and get the time I needed on-set. And so I would spend a lot of time rehearsing on set with the cast. The process was so centred around them and that meant sometimes I ran behind because I was so focused on getting the best performance from him. So making sure they had the time to do that when you’re surrounded by a big production machine was one of the big challenges.

The other major challenge was creating the sound, which we were making from scratch. To make it sound realistic but totally controlled as well was the thing that took the longest out of any aspect of the movie.

Did your short films – one of which is a prequel to The Survivalist – provide a good starting point from which to direct your first feature?

Short films are essentially sketchbooks for oil paintings. We did a prequel to the movie called Magpie which was funded by the BFI as a trial run for how I would direct The Survivalist and I cast Martin in that and he was so good I cast him in the feature and we were shooting within a matter of months. It was a great experience – we had a lot of the same crew – it was fascinating beginning to establish the language of shooting a feature film. It’s a brilliant idea, if you get the chance to make 15 minutes of the movie you’re going to do you find out what works and what doesn’t work. In Magpie the performances are really good, but the one thing I didn’t like, if this is set in a world where everyone is starving, the actors look very well-fed. So I knew for The Survivalist they had to lose weight. So for 10 weeks prior to the shoot Martin began dropping his eating massively. We had a nutritionist who advised Martin (McCann), Mia (Goth) and Olwen (Fouere) on cutting back their diet. Olwen remained on the diet throughout the whole production. That’s something that came from the experience of shooting Magpie.

“The biggest lesson I’ve always taken forth with me – and it’s taken a long time – is that the actors tell the story”.

The film is a very lean, tense thriller, was that the case from the get-go or did you have to leave a lot on the editing room floor?

The premise was fundamentally suspenseful because you have three characters in a cabin and there’s not enough food for all of them. So whatever way you cut it, every scene should be full of tension. Every single scene. Anytime anything is happening on screen, one of the characters could die. I’ve sat through screenings with 300 people where nobody goes to the toilet because it’s so tense.

A lot of that as well is to do with my editor Mark (Towns; Lilting), who has a strong background in documentary and has won a BAFTA for it, and we’re very disciplined in making sure the audience have the best experience. It’s essentially a cable we’re running the audience along and the tighter that cable is, the better the experience.

What was your favourite scene to shoot?

There’s so many great scenes in the film because of the decisions the actors made. My favourite sequence is probably the arrival of the women through to the shaving scene and walking that scene through with the actors really added to the realism of it. When Martin takes the actors inside [the cabin], I didn’t tell the actors I was going to film that. I kept the camera rolling, so when Mia walked into the cabin for the first time it’s the first time she’s seen it. She’s looking around and the focus-puller is a bit caught off guard and he’s trying to keep her sharp. There’s a really magic to the first time you do anything. In fact in that scene one of the actors is wearing a microphone but you don’t notice because you’re looking at their faces. That was absolutely fantastic. It’s going to be rare for me to get the opportunity to work with three actors as talented as Martin, Mia and Olwen and have the freedom to do that on set. When you move to a bigger production, it’s more controlled, there’s less chance for improvisation and one of the special things about this is you’re rarely going to see a better cast given the space to make interesting choices.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a filmmaker?

They’re all really important. The biggest lesson I’ve always taken forth with me – and it’s taken a long time – is that the actors tell the story. When I got into filmmaking I was obsessed with the camera, with formats, dollies, cranes but I’ve worked for a long time with my editor and he says the most important thing is what you’re cast do. He says I can’t do anything if the cast haven’t given me something to cut with. And I had to make a lot of choices and compromises, as you have to with any low-budget film, in order to protect the actors so they could deliver their performances and it’s really reinforced that in the process because as long as the actors can tell the story, you’ll be alright.

The Survivalist is out now, alongside two more of Stephen Fingleton’s short films; Insulin and Away Days, only on We Are Colony.


6 Films To Watch After You’ve Seen The Survivalist

Originally published on We Are Colony.

In The Survivalist, BAFTA-nominated Stephen Fingleton creates an intensely realistic vision of a post-collapse world. The loss of modern luxuries and amenities force three survivors to collate all their wits and resources to avoid encroaching danger.

To celebrate its release in cinemas and on VOD, I recalled six other films that pit their protagonists against extreme circumstances and make you more than glad to be inside watching them…



Mad Max: Fury Road (DIR. George Miller, 2015)

A post-apocalyptic movie on steroids, Mad Max is arguably last year’s most talked about film. Where The Survivalist is sparse and introspective, Fury Road is a ferocious whirlwind of CGI spectacle. Still, there’s a reason Indiewire labeled Fingleton’s debut “Mad Max in the countryside”. Each bring a vivid sense of detail to the ‘end of the world’ scenarios they have created to startling effect.

The Survivalist revels in the muddy minutiae of a post-collapse environment.”

Snowpiercer (DIR. Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

Set on a train trapped in an infinite loop around a frozen planet, the world’s dwindling resources inspire a group of ‘third class’ passengers – among them Captain America (Chris Evans), Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) and the Elephant Man (John Hurt) – to overthrow the oligarchs that power the engine.

Refreshingly different in its take on disaster, Snowpiercer is an absurdist piece of cinema. Visually it might not have much in common with The Survivalist, which revels in the muddy minutiae of a post-collapse environment, but it’s a stellar example of how to inject a bit of humour into what’s typically a sombre genre.

Equal parts suspense and horror, Snowpiercer is contemplative yet entertaining and where both films excel is in their ability to tell an expansive story in a small space.

The Road (DIR. John Hillcoat, 2009)

Speaking of sombre, John Hillcoat’s The Road is the often held up as a litmus test against which apocalyptic films are inevitably compared. As Viggo Mortensen shepherds Kodi Smit-McPhee across a ravaged, cannibalized America, it’s hard to recall a film that has so frighteningly depicted austerity.

The result is something remarkable and haunting, but which, at times, feels excessive. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s elegiac score orchestrates certain moments to detrimental effect and there are sequences where silence alone could be more fitting. The Coen brothers, in their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, left the soundtrack devoid of music, a choice which subsequently maximizes tension.

Indeed, where The Survivalist is most effective is in its absence of music; when pregnant silences and the threat that fills them, linger.

“Cuarón and Fingleton exhibit a flare for kinetic filmmaking, utilising tracking shots to explore a primitive landscape with poetic flourish”.

Children Of Men (DIR. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

The world is a battleground in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Clive Owen must act as bodyguard to society’s last hope at regeneration. Now twice Oscar-anointed, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki demonstrates striking visual prowess. His recreation of a war-torn dystopia, where characters live in perpetual fear of being struck by a bullet or a bomb is astounding.
The Survivalist employs a similar aesthetic of dirt and drizzle, and both embrace a costume and production design that feels chillingly plausible. Likewise, Cuarón and Fingleton exhibit a flare for kinetic filmmaking, utilizing tracking shots to explore a primitive landscape with poetic flourish.


The Rover (DIR. David Michôd, 2014)

Australian director David Michod’s follow-up to Animal Kingdom sees Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce exchanging blows against the backdrop of a desolate, dystopian society.
Perhaps most similar to The Survivalist, what separates both these films from the lesser iterations of their genre is the focus on the human condition as opposed to the context. The reasons for economic and societal collapse are for the foremost left a mystery, and in a world where supplies and a sense of order are scarce, The Rover and The Survivalist question what’s left of mankind when civilization and its organizing principles disappear.

“An immersive, intimate experience against the backdrop of a sublime and primal landscape”.

The Revenant (DIR. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

The film that might finally secure Leonardo DiCaprio his long awaited Oscar, sees him take on a bear, a perilous journey and a Tom Hardy with an agenda. To say it’s deserving is an understatement.


Whilst The Survivalist’s scale might be smaller, both films test the endurance of their protagonists as they are confronted by punishing situations that push their bodies and psychological strength to the limit.  In a world that is as exquisitely beautiful as it is brutal, the imminence of death seems omnipresent.

With little dialogue, our only window into the pain that DiCaprio’s vengeful frontiersman Hugh Glass suffers is the nuance of his performance and he more than delivers. In The Survivalist, Irish actor Martin McCann likewise has to experience the woes of maggots and using fire to self-heal, though he’s spared the grizzly encounter. In each film, the result is an immersive, intimate experience against the backdrop a sublime and primal landscape.

The Survivalist, alongside two exclusive short films, is now available on We Are Colony with behind-the-scenes extras: http://www.wearecolony.com/the-survivalist

Review: Ida

Ida, Poland, 2014. DIR. Pawel Pawlikowski. Starring: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik

A 1962 period piece about Polish nuns might not get ones pulse racing immediately, but let this stark, slow-burning piece de resistance from director Pawel Pawlikowski wash over you and it will be anything but a baptism of fire.

Ida begins with the brevity, austerity and artistry that will quickly become its trademark. It’s landscapes and set pieces are all but empty, reflecting the pious lifestyle of our protagonist, Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska). Anna is an orphan and novitiate nun on the precipice of taking her vows, a beacon of innocence, simplicity and devoted faith, she has never left the convent and therefore has no experience outside of it. That is until her Mother Superior, in possession of more information concerning Anna’s past than she has hitherto let on, orders Anna to visit her last living relative before wholly committing to the faith.

ida_1That relative turns out to be Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a sharp-tongued and cynical former judge, disillusioned by her Communist politics and repenting for having sent ‘Enemies of the People’ to death with a chain of smoking, drinking and fornicating. Wasting no time with saccharine family reunions, she expeditiously informs Anna that she was christened Ida Lebenstein and orphaned after her Jewish parents were killed during Nazi occupation. All of which young Anna takes on-board without batting an eye-lid, as if the second generation just had to absorb the stain of history into their being and learn to live with it. For all their political, religious and characteristic differences, these two women are stoic and brave in their own ways.

And so they embark on a road trip, a spiritual journey of discovery if you will, in the hopes of finding where their loved ones are buried and how they came to their untimely end. Together the women paint a picture of past and future, Communist and Catholic, embittered and naïve, and whilst they begin their journey as disparate entities, there is a sense that by the time the credits roll they share more than a surname.

Rather than alienating us, as perhaps German expressionism does, Pawlikowski’s decision to employ black and white cinematography engrosses and immerses the audience in the time period. Moreover, the austere and striking look of the film augments the atmosphere of loneliness and haunting, rendering us sympathetic to a nation in mourning.

ida-1There’s not a shot that isn’t meticulously and masterfully constructed. Each frame is its own masterpiece, recalling Vermeer, Godard, Bergman and the French New Wave, but revelling in its own abstraction. This is fiercely original cinema. Vast, empty skies and cavernous corridors often dominate the frame, reducing the people in it to specs on a greying horizon. Faces and heads are frequently relegated to the bottom third of the frame, again minimalized in contrast to augmented and expansive interiors. There is one scene set in a hotel wherein the entire ceiling appears as if to balance on Anna’s head. Indeed the weight of chapel columns, building facades and gloomy weather seems to form a perpetual cloud over these people; Wanda too, seems consistently enshrouded by a cloud of her own smoke, resembling the despairing fog that cloaked the post-war Polish nation, and perhaps a subtle reminder of Poland’s complicity or perpetuation in certain aspects of the war.

The holocaust casts a long shadow over Pawlikowski’s film, and interactions – especially between Wanda and others – simmer with bitterness and distrust. She is unsurprisingly and perhaps justified in her caustic wariness, wherein an overwhelming aura of hardship, sadness and residual tension threaten to spill over at anytime.

Like it’s aesthetic, the script is sparse and all the more effective for it. Silences echo around vast buildings; metal clattering against ceramic as the nuns consume soup in almost oppressive quiet (Ida’s escaped, girlish giggle is fantastically defiant in a latter scene of similar acoustics). What’s left unsaid in dialogue is more than filled in with striking, enduring close-ups. Pawlikowski frequently closes in on Ida’s face, a blank canvas for corrupted innocence, temptation and conflict. There is a beguiling platitude to her expressions and yet her eyes flicker with bouts of knowing and intensity, and she reveals a capacity for rage and passion that belies her ethereal stillness; perhaps symbolic of Poland’s dormant vivacity after years of oppression.

Ida, Sundance Film Festival 2014

From the outset, this is a film that intentionally and expressively uses silence, portraiture and composition – its style is its substance. In an age of increasing studio budgets and awe-inspiring special effects, Ida provides a welcome counterpoint; an exercise in restraint and austerity that reveals the power of saying a lot with a little. Its stillness and focus demand your attention, but rewards it with a film so utterly captivating you almost wish the running time was longer.

ida2_7094944The two Agata’s are astonishing in their respective roles, and with piercing stares, wry smiles and blind determination, carry the film on their shoulders. Ms. Kulesza’s Wanda is poised, sardonic and ruthless, but capable of excavating past her tough exterior to reveal a grieving woman at breaking point. Ms. Trzebuchowska, (a university student discovered in a café by a friend of Pawlikowski’s) is a serene and enigmatic screen presence. She appears to us a clean slate, with no history to her name. As she gradually unveils her identity and carves out her own future, Trzebuchowska’s eyes sparkle with curiosity and her lips curl with mischief and one realizes they have become fully invested in this young woman’s journey.

Realism is further accentuated by the sound design, which only uses diegetic music and has a startling clarity and delicacy to it. Wanda plays sombre and elegiac classical Mozart, which is punctuated by the haunting jazz anthem ‘Naima’ by Coltrane, over which Anna and a handsome young saxophonist promising excitement connect.  Dialogue or music is often layered with external elements, such as wind or rain, as if the omnipresence of the outside world will always linger; the wind rattling eerily through the forest, the severity of spade hitting ground as bodies and truths are uncovered and the chaste clinking of holy cutlery in the convent. This complexity of sound, with clarity of image coalesces to resonant effect.

For all its measured, mannered compositions, there is an abundance of emotion present within each frame and its understatement endures even in the most tragic of scenes. I doubt whether anything can prepare you for such an ending. A truly eye-opening experience for all involved.

Verdict: Haunting, startling and revelatory. As much a beautiful and tragic coming-of-age story, as it is a stunning feat of cinema.