dir. Pedro Costa, 2009, France/Portugal
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: