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Now Playing: Change Nothing (Ne Change Rien)

Change Nothing
dir. Pedro Costa, 2009, France/Portugal

Rating: 8.9

The bottom line: Crucial viewing for lovers of cinema or music.

Now playing in limited release across the U.S. and just finishing its second and final screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center (as part of their essential annual European Union Film Festival) is Change Nothing, an intimate documentary portrait of French actress-turned-chanteuse Jeanne Balibar. Directed by the great Portugese filmmaker Pedro Costa, this is a highly original and unusually accomplished film about the working life of a musician. Unlike most music-themed films, where directorial point-of-view tends to be subsumed into hagiography, Change Nothing is a stand-alone work of art not aimed squarely at the fan base of its subject (just like Costa’s earlier In Vanda’s Room wasn’t made for heroin enthusiasts). Knowing nothing of Balibar’s music, as I didn’t prior to seeing this, shouldn’t prevent you from rushing out to experience Costa’s vital movie if it returns to Chicago cinema screens later in the year; the only prerequisites to enjoying it are having open eyes and ears.

Pedro Costa is best known in America for his “Fontainhas Trilogy,” released last year as a quadruple DVD box set by the Criterion Collection (an unusually enterprising move given the paucity of the films’ American theatrical screenings). Over the course of three monumental films – Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) – Costa found his voice as a master of lo-fi digital cinema, in which he chronicled the denizens of a Lisbon shantytown through non-judgmental Warhol-ian long takes and a Vermeer-like sense of natural light. By juxtaposing shots of dispossessed laborers, immigrants and junkies with shots depicting the systematic demolition of their neighborhood, Costa provided a voice for the voiceless and invaluably captured an ephemeral way of existence in the process. In Change Nothing, Costa applies his now-signature “patient” style to a radically different subject but with equally rewarding results.

Jeanne Balibar is best known in America as a terrifically precise actress who has worked multiple times apiece with heavyweight French directors Jacques Rivette, Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas. In 2003, she successfully branched out into a singing career by recording an album, Paramour, that featured among its tracks the theme songs from the classic Hollywood films Johnny Guitar and Night of the Hunter. Costa’s film picks up Balibar several years into her second career as she records in the studio (with a barely glimpsed art-rock quartet), plays live club performances and even rehearses for a bare bones stage performance of Offenbach’s opera La Périchole. But none of this is explained through the use of traditional documentary devices such as interviews, voice-over narration or intertitles. Instead, Costa plunges viewers directly into these situations in a way that focuses us relentlessly, hypnotically on the process of creating music.

Costa’s acknowledged influence here is Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One, the ultimate process-oriented music film, which famously and exhaustively documented The Rolling Stones rehearsing and recording their seminal track “Sympathy for the Devil.” (With characteristic perversity, Godard never lets us hear the complete song.) Godard’s Pop Art colors and elaborate tracking shots perfectly capture both The Stones at their peak as well as what might be termed the spirit of the late 1960s counterculture. But, these being very different times and Balibar not being a juggernaut like The Stones, Costa finds a more appropriate stylistic approach to her music with high contrast black and white digital cinematography, composing images that, in their starkness and minimalism, occasionally and thrillingly border on abstraction. When the film opens with Balibar performing the song “Torture” in concert as sparse slivers of light perforate a mostly-velvety-black screen, I was reminded of nothing so much as a live action Rohrshach inkblot test.

Shortly following this auspicious opening is an epic sequence of Balibar and her guitarist Rodolphe Burger rehearsing another track, this time in the studio. This sequence, which unfolds in real-time and lasts for nearly a third of the entire movie, sees Balibar scat-singing the same melodic line over and over again in a cigarette-corroded voice that recalls the sexy authority of Marlene Dietrich as well as the wrecked majesty of late period Billie Holiday. This is the part of the film most likely to test the patience of some viewers (at least judging by the reaction of the audience members around me); one could argue after all that “nothing” really happens in this scene. One could equally argue, however, that “everything” happens in this scene, as viewers are witness to nothing less than the miraculous act of artistic creation, a process as mysterious, profound and beautiful as that of giving birth or the creation of the universe. This is the true heart of the movie: one meticulous artist finding the perfect form for capturing a kindred spirit in a dreamy, entrancing portrait that ennobles them both. It is here that the hidden smile of Change Nothing lies.

Watch Jeanne Balibar perform “Torture” in an excerpt from Change Nothing on YouTube:

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

23 responses to “Now Playing: Change Nothing (Ne Change Rien)

  • business review

    Our own yes is getting posses-sive about this unique French actress singer who reminds him physically at least of his mother his ex-wife and his daughter receives the treatment for the next two weeks here in New York as Costas latest creation Change Nothing opens for a two- week run at . That treatment if Costas earlier work of which TM has seen only is to be taken as example includes the kind of effects reminiscent of static close-ups shot at odd enticing angles and a certain well very slow pace… In addition to singing smoky jazz-inflected numbers the chanteuse can handle with equal facility light opera such as s and Costa shown at right captures the scenes of rehearsals and or maybe a performance as well.

  • Top Ten Films of 2011 « White City Cinema

    […] Pedro Costa’s first feature-length movie since the colossal Colossal Youth is this deceptively simple documentary about French actress-turned-singer Jeanne Balibar. Like the previous film, a dissection of a notorious Lisbon slum, Change Nothing was shot digitally and is predicated on static long takes that may test the patience of the uninitiated. (A woman sitting next to me at the Siskel Center asked, “Did you know this was going to be like this?” about a half an hour in. I silently nodded. Several minutes later, she walked out.) But adventurous viewers should find much to love in the way Costa focuses relentlessly on the process of making music – whether the smoky-voiced Balibar is recording with her band in the studio, playing club shows (a live performance of “Johnny Guitar” is spectacularly cool) or even rehearsing for an opera. Gorgeously shot in high contrast black and white, this is one of the best music movies of recent years. Full review here. […]

    • erica ganzorig

      This was the first time i ever watched this type of documentary and when you told us in class before it started there was no narrative or interviews that most documentaries had, i was confused on how this movie was going to go. But after watching this it showed me to a completely new way of documentaries. It was easy to follow and really showed me the deep struggles of a musician. The long 30 minute part where she is repeating the same lines to get it right was kind of hard to watch because when she was frustrated it got me frustrated and i wanted her to get it right. This film opened my eyes to a different way of filming in general, where it just shows what somebody is doing or something their passionate about, without any explanation. This film had so much passion because Jeanne did about her music and Costa captured it perfectly. When you said that this movie has a “patient” style you are completely right, you need a lot of patience with this movie, i found myself hard to concentrate at some points, but that is the art of this film in my opinion. The combination that it was black and white too and no narrating or any explanations made the movie just more unique and different.

  • Omar Arrez

    Change Nothing turned out to be special as it turned camera lenses into the audience’s picking hole to Jeanne Balibar’s life behind stage. All of the hard work, dedication, and frustration was shown as real events happening in the moment. This was not at all a typical documentary, informing us of the singer’s hits and glory but her life as hard working, dedicated, and frustrated artist that at last reached success. Never the less Pedro Costa took a chance with how he choose to create the film.

  • Zoe

    Change Nothing was not a normal documentary and it was it’s unique look into the lives of artists that makes it so successful. Despite not following normal documentary tropes, it could be argued that it tells a much more raw and honest story because of that. There are no interviews with our main subject, actress turned singer Jeanne Balibar. And because we never hear from the subjects, we don’t hear their feelings or their opinions or what they were thinking. We as an audience are spared being told what to feel, but instead just relate to the visuals. We feel her frustration when she can’t get a tempo correctly, we feel her slow sensuousness when she sings onstage. There is no emotionally manipulating soundtrack to pull at our hearts except for the artist herself. No band members regaling the backstage dramas to distort our views. It is the most real and pure film about a music that has ever been made. There is no voiceover nor title card explaining anything. And this movie requires no explanation. If we have a question about what’s happening, it slowly disappears from our minds because it doesn’t really matter. Director Pedro Costa lays out everything before our eyes, shot in high contrast black and white. Every frame is a photograph, with light barely hitting Balibar’s face, or just the highest points of an instrument, or piece of furniture peaking through the blackness. It’s an artistic movie about the process of art. And it is wonderful.

  • Annie Stavins

    I can appreciate this film, but it was not for me. It was hard for me to concentrate on the film and sit still. It was a very raw, slow, and repetitive. This film was beautiful though. It was so humble and delicate. Jeanne Balibar works so hard to make everything perfect. She sings the same phrases over and over again perfecting them. I enjoyed how real this documentary was, they were just being themselves and we got the behind scenes pass to view it. I found the relationship Balibar shared with her guitarist Rodolphe Burger to be so strong and full of love. They bonded with each other on a level most people don’t ever reach. It’s so easy to pick up on how much they care for each other. He had so much patience for her, he knew just what she needed in each moment. The other thing that stood out to me in this film is the shadows. Almost the entire film was black in each shot. There was one or two bright scenes that stood out, one being the ending scene where they song that song and you could feel how happy and connected they all were. I loved all the shadows and how you could never fully tell where they were or what was in the room. It made the documentary more about the music. The shadows only added to the film and made it more unique and perfectly fit the vibe of the music and personalities. Beautiful film and beautiful people just wouldn’t be a repeat for me.

  • Enkhjin Dorjkhand

    I really liked this documentary Change Nothing. This film had very unique look and she had very beautiful voice. The song she was singing at the beginning is still stuck in my head. I really liked the part where she is in a room with the light. It was the only scene where i can see her. So, it was nice. But the best one scene was where she was singing on the stage right at the beginning. The camera dont really show from the front and through out the song, it only showed her back. I think this gave more elegant feeling to the scene. It was very slow paced,yet it finished really quickly. So, i watched again after i went home.

  • Alejandro Magdaleno

    Change Nothing was a really interesting documentary, I never seen something like it. I do feel like Change nothing wasn’t for me though because it was so hard for me to pay attention when theres not much going on, it was hard for me to focus. I did see amazing shots as they filmed the girl trying to practice her singing. Most of the scenes were in black and white and there were a lot of shadows in the background of her while she was singing or when she was smoking. Even though Change nothing wasn’t my type of film, I still found it so interesting because it made me see how hard artist have to work in order to be successful in the music industry. It made me see things differently and appreciate what these people do and how much work they put into there music. A specific scene that shows how hard she’s working is when she’s with another girl in a room trying to hit low and high notes and she’s working on that for quite a while. This was a very well done documentary that showed great shots and also showed the life of a great artist that was Jeanne Balibar.

  • Nidhi Patel

    The creation of this film was outstanding. As a documentary I thought the director put a lot of thought and creativity into making this film. However, this is not something that I would enjoy watching for leisure. When the movie first started I thought it was paused or frozen. I tried to replay it a couple of times, but then I realized that’s how the movie was made. It was paced very slowly. Even the songs were very slow and they kept on going for a lot of minutes. Something interesting that I noticed is the cinematography. Although the film was in black and white, the director did not leave the whole screen open. The scenes were faded along the edges and only focused on the center where the actors were. Personally, this bothered me. I felt as if I was watching a play on stage even though it was a documentary film. At times it almost felt as if we were just looking at the shadows of the actors. The director does not even speak to Jeanne Balibar throughout the movie. She is not asked a single question about her career. She is simply observed. The director only captured her work and parts of her alone time while she is close to stage. There is no story line to this film. Even if you skip half of the movie you won’t feel like you’re missing something. This documentary is simply about observing an individual and that is something different. Something that I haven’t seen before.

  • Sana Aktar

    Change Nothing was a striking documentary that strayed far from the typical elements an average documentary is composed of and instead created its own boundaries. Pedro Costa chose to take an unconventional route with filming the work, and this attitude is apparent throughout the film. The entire documentary had an intensely personal quality to it: the background chatter and sounds of Jeanne Balibar and her fellow musicians allow the audience to feel as if they are actually in the room rather than just watching from the outside. Another way that Costa makes the documentary feel uniquely personal is the mesmerizing close-up shots he films of Balibar as she is practicing. The viewer is able to witness the full spectrum of emotions Balibar experiences as she goes through the recording process, whether it be frustration or happiness.

    Another distinctive aspect of this documentary is the way Costa is able to enhance the emotion of Balibar’s music through cinematography. The black and white aesthetic brings out the melancholy and somber tones in Balibar’s work and heightens the atmosphere to something dark and almost reminiscent of film noir (especially since her music gives off a sense of mystery and foreboding). In one scene, half of Balibar’s face is constantly in shadow, and this further adds to the dark theme that runs through the documentary.

    In general, it is undeniable that this documentary is a work of art. Although it isn’t the most entertaining documentary to watch, I can appreciate the fact that it is something to be admired, much as a painting is admired in a museum.

  • DM Watson

    “Change Nothing” is a sumptuous peep show. The screen, forever washed in darkness, blooms with light emanating from the performers’ souls. My eyes were drawn to the light and not musical instruments or faces or figures. The abstract-ness of the frame compositions made me feel as if I was witnessing something that I hadn’t quite earned the privilege to view, yet still pressing my eye against a peephole and hoping I would continue to go unnoticed.

    Costa’s film is almost too intimate. It lulled me into a trance (the word ‘hypnotic’ has been used to describe the film) but then, when the scene changed, reminded me that I was witnessing the birth of Balibar’s art — and it was magical. Together, Balibar’s and Costa’s approach to documenting the music making process makes me appreciate the end result (the music) all the more.

    The lack of voice overs and archival footage erased the notion that “Change Nothing” was a documentary. The film is raw, honest, insecure, passionate, and above all, real.

  • Grace Collamat

    I would consider the documentary as abstractly done, the type that you have to have high standards in fine arts in order to appreciate it, because first off, it is in black and white, it is slow paced, and a lot of the shots are done in close ups, especially of Balibar. For example, when Balibar was practicing her music, only a little shed of light was captured on one side of her face, and the rest you can hardly see anything including the background; another abstract practice was that for the most part of the documentary, especially on the first couple of minutes, Balibar was the only character that had her face shown and not her entire body, while the rest of the cast had a whole body shot. Also, the documentary movie shared scenes that I did not understand why it was put and for a moment found it superfluous, but I kept my mind open and realized later on that may be the scene was added to complement its “abstractness,” and that particular scene I am referring about was that of the two Asian women smoking in a cafe and the shot of a man sitting alone in the dark with the background music making it all feel like a suspense, drama, and gangster movie.

  • Marisa

    Watching this film was very different for me. You are mostly just listening to the music being performed or recorded. I feel like this gives us more of a better understanding of what it is like to be in the music business and it helps us appreciate the music. We really get to appreciate her sound and how much she is putting into this album. She shows that she will make this album perfect when she listens to a lyric and sings it for almost a half hour straight. This album is her pride and joy and she will make it perfect. You can tell that she really loves what she does because she is so passionate about music.

    I don’t think I would have watched this film on my own time because it was hard for me to keep an interest in the film. I can appreciate the way he filmed this though. It was beautifully put together, the way he used darkness and black and white really gave it a music feel to me.

  • Patrick Aniol

    “Change Nothing” was a surprising documentary for me about the true life of a musician. The black and white motion picture presented tremendous detail as to where the viewer should be looking (you can only see white figures in the pitch black background). I think the director’s intention of the film was to create a comfortable environment where you can feel like you are spectating Jeanne Balibar assemble an album. Of course with this intention, we were able to see the repetitiveness required to get every little detail perfect. I had a hard time focusing at this part, and I think the director wanted to show us how Jeanne goes through the same thing while live recording in the studio.
    The main thing I used when watching this movie was my ears. Even though I had my eyes focused on the frames, it’s what I heard that mattered more. I was able to hear the song evolve which is what the recording session was about. The director shows you the journey to the final product of the song, which gives you happiness after witnessing all of the boring parts. Having said this, I now have more appreciation for music thanks to Costa’s interesting way of documenting the process.

  • Yvette Luna

    Change Nothing was truly a one of a kind documentary. It really doesn’t even feel like a documentary at all. It was very artfully made. The contrast of black and white was really beautiful as most of the scenes were so abstract that you could hardly tell what you were looking at. The film almost reminded me of Casablanca in the way that the use of lighting casted several shadows. Pedro Costa made an artful film for an artist herself, Jeanne Balibar. He showed the struggles an artist may have creating their album, finding the flow of where their new album is going. We saw how some song as difficult to create, while other songs are made so easily.

  • andrei podariu

    Change Nothing was probably one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Many people would disagree, and say that they actually liked the movie, but that’s why everyone is entitled to their opinion. This movie was pointless, to me at least, and made no sense. It was almost two hours of a lady singing over and over and over and over again. There were only like 8 different shots throughout the whole movie and the camera never moved, it was stationary in every scene. The overall plot, or lack of one thereof, didn’t tickle my fancy. Overall though, the shots were very good, and it was a nice play on black and white. At some points you really had to think about what you were looking at. I’m not going to lie, but i kept dozing off throughout the movie, this was because the movie was not appealing to me.

  • Syeda Tahir

    This film was unlike other documentaries, it didn’t have any interviews or narration. Director Pedro Costa is only interested in showing us, how music is made. The movie is shot in black and white, which gives a nostalgic feel to it. Jeanne Balibar has a beautiful voice and each of her song sounds of different genre. The first half of the movie might test the audience’s patience, as the scene where Balibar is rehearsing for a song, goes on for several minutes. This documentary is about music more than the artist. It appeals to the audience with its unconventional methods tht were adopted by the director to make this film.

  • Yesnaya Toledo

    “Change Nothing” was a very interesting documentary that Ive watched this far. It was very hard for me to focus on this documentary because I am not use to watching films that are that dark and at times hard for me to tell what was going on during some scenes. Usually there is a formula when filming a documentary about music artist, generally you see close up of the artists and their band mates and maybe a shot of the entire stage with either the artist or a narrator speaking behind it. But “Change Nothing” was definitely different and very raw and although this film was not my favorite, I could really appreciate what the director was trying to capture and how dedicated she was to her music. It was also special to see the connection her and her guitarist had; they understood each other and they both knew their worth and how special her music was that made this film so real and authentic. I think if they knew that they were being filmed and the cameras right in front of them throughout the entire time … we would have not get the same emotion or the intimacy they showed us. overall, I really like how the filmmakers did not want to be intrusive and let them show us their true and raw emotions… What I think was very important that the filmmakers did was earn the trust of the artist to be able to show us what it takes to make music and how dedicated she was.

  • Francesca F.

    Change Nothing was unlike any other film I’ve seen. That being said, I’m not sure I would watching anything like it again. For someone with attention issues, this was a challenge to sit through. But, putting my bias aside, I can appreciate this film for its rawness and beauty, as well as its unique take on the documentary style. For me, the saving grace was Jeanne Balibar’s music. I absolutely loved it. When you warned of the 30 minute repetitive scene, I was nervous. But it turned out to be almost hypnotic for me. This entire movie was like a trance. High contrast black and white, very minimalistic, voices, instruments, performances… It shows the life of making music, nothing more. I enjoyed the intimate moments, even in frustration, because it’s real. That what this life consists of… that’s what perfection takes.

  • Serena Rayyan

    This was the first time that I have ever watched this type of documentary and when you told us in class before it started that there was no narrative or interviews that most documentaries had, I was confused on how this movie was going to go. After seeing this movie I got a new feel for documentaries and realized that they mean a lot to people. It was easy to follow and really showed me the deep struggles of a musician. It also showed me dedication and what it’s like to really work hard for something that you are passionate about. The scene where Jeanne took 30 minutes where she kept repeating her lyrics made me frustrated for her because I could see that she was putting in her all and felt that she was letting herself down. This film has not only opened my eyes to a different way of filming in general, but it also made me realize that if you want something hard in life you have to work really hard in order to achieve and succeed. Jeanne had so much passion about her music and Costa captured it perfectly. I really enjoyed the song that was playing through out the film because it was calm and relaxing. It flowed well with this film!

  • Sandra Kogan

    I can really appreciate this film as an art form. It actually gives perspective of what it is like to be in the music industry. Rather than focusing on the big performance like many other music documentaries, it gives you the story behind the performance, which I think is fascinating for it shows all the hard work that it takes to create art. Also, every shot in the film seemed so perfect, many shots looked like they should be a picture. The shots were very pure, and in many scenes it didn’t seem like there was a camera, because everyone acted so naturally.This gave a really honest feeling to the film. That being said, it was a little difficult for me to sit through the film, for many scenes seemed very dragged out. However, I feel like that was intentional in order for the audience to truly understand the art form, and feel the hard work and struggle of the musicians. What kept my interest throughout the entire film was the artistic shots and perspective, and the music. I really enjoyed the music. I will remember this film because it challenges the “normal” documentary. The scenes were all beautifully shot, and I especially liked the use of the black and white.

  • Shy Hossein

    Change nothing was not a normal documentary by any means. It was also one that i didnt find myself enjoying, but could see how others would. A documentary, in this case about a band, is generally a chance to see behind the scenes and learn something about the people that wouldnt normally be known by their onstage faces. However, with this documentary we just see constant singing with minimal talking/interaction besides working on their work. Especially with scenes that last so long, all thats left was for me to sit there and try and analyze the situation, facial expressions, music and so on to try and learn more about them and their relationships with one another and so on. Its for this primary reason that i did not enjoy this movie much

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