NE CHANGE RIEN (Change Nothing) B
Portugal France (100 mi) 2009 d: Pedro Costa
France especially, with the familiar sound of the accordion heard throughout the streets of Paris, at least in the movies, is a musical city, and one whose culture thrives in the familiar art of the chansons, perhaps best depicted by Édith Piaf. One of the best film references is hearing Bernadette Lafont drown her sorrows by repeatedly listening to Piaf sing “Les Amants de Paris” (YouTube - La maman et la putain on YouTube 3:05), a 1948 recording in Eustache’s mammoth masterwork THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (1972). The tradition of actors that also have singing careers is hardly unique to France, as names that come to mind are Paul Robeson, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Panamanian salsa star Rubén Blades, or even Jennifer Lopez, while French popularity calls to mind Marlene Dietrich, Jacques Brel, Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour, Françoise Hardy, Anna Karina, hell, even Gérard Depardieu played an old broken down crooner in a recent film, while any number of current European actresses also have recording careers, as it’s a lucrative business. It might sound surprising to hear the name Jeanne Balibar mixed in with this group, as she’s considered a serious dramatic actress that works fairly regularly with Jacques Rivette, Olivier Assayas, or Arnaud Desplechin.
Nonetheless, here she is in a documentary as a singer being filmed mostly in the studio by Portuguese director Pedro Costa, no less, an intensely challenging artist, an experimenter and stark minimalist, as anti-commercial a director as there is working today, known for his lyrical yet near documentary sense of realism depicting socially downbeat subject matter. Typically in his films, nothing moves, as the director’s eye for film composition reveals everything the viewer needs to know. Here as well, shot entirely in Black and White by the director himself, the camera sits completely motionless as Balibar sits in a chair or stands at a mike with a cigarette, as there is barely any sign of movement. Amusingly a cat enters the picture midway through and provides more action than anything previously seen. However, each frame is carefully constructed, a blend of shadow and light where the prominent themes reflect feelings that live in the dark, songs of isolation and alienation, each one immersed in a melancholic wistfulness that sounds like a hushed quiet, as Balibar doesn’t sing so much as dramatically whisper or speak her songs.
Don’t expect Jonathan Demme here, as these are not completed works ready for the stage, instead this is a behind the scenes glimpse of the punishingly endless repetition required to get it stage ready. This is like listening to scales being played on the piano, where that’s all you get to hear, as the film is about the learning process, where guitarist/composer Rodolphe Burger seems like a driving musical force behind the operations, as the arrangements are stunning, all about tone and texture. Balibar bravely exposes herself in preliminary phases, where at times she flubs the words, or sings flat or off key, or in one particularly hypnotic number, the title number, doesn’t even sing at all, but just hums as she can’t find the natural rhythm of the piece, despite the musicians counting out the numbers of the beat, or hearing several playbacks which focus on a different musical instrument. Balibar’s timing does not reflect natural rhythm, as she’s continually off just a bit, which is why the endlessly repetitive rehearsal time is needed. For the viewer, however, this can get frustrating and may strain the limits and feel excessively monotonous, as we only hear individual sections, never the whole, so there were many walk outs during the screening, where entire rows disappeared. But the song, which we never hear in its entirety, is instead heard in various layers where either the voice or the musicians are isolated, experimenting and blending together different arrangements. My own personal favorite was the uncredited similarity to Curtis Mayfield - Superfly (on YouTube 3:53), accentuating the soul percussive intro and the funk horn arrangement, which they most likely tossed by the end.
What’s especially gratifying are the musical selections themselves, as they do reflect the imagination of a cinephile and a stage dramatist, including an eclectic grouping that ranges from the muted emptiness of Nico (Jeanne Balibar - These Days on YouTube 3:58) or the smoldering sexuality of Marlene Dietrich in heavily accented English (Jeanne Balibar - Torture on YouTube 3:11), where the all inclusive cigarette is her act as Balibar is nervous and not yet comfortable with her own rendition, to an operatic number from Offenbach’s La Périchole, where a voice coach never lets her get through more than a line or two without immediate criticisms and corrections, while also offering praise where indicated, but these constant interruptions go on through the entire song, which feels, from Balibar’s view, like it will never end. This is also shown in a live performance of some kind, but from a view behind the curtain of the piano player and a few of the singer’s backs. This was the closest we came to a finished product, as the hauntingly sad, socially relevant Brecht Mother Courage style lyrics were especially poignant. Perhaps the strangest choice was the eerie Peggy Lee theme to the film JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), barely recognizable in the film, offered here in an alternate take (not in the film, but on YouTube 4:07), Jeanne Balibar - Johnny Guitar, as opposed to previous versions Johnny Guitar (Title Song) sung by Peggy Lee (on YouTube 3:12), or an exotic instrumental here Johnny Guitar (on YouTube 3:17), or here Amaro Del - Johnny Guitar (on YouTube 3:20). For actual scenes from the film, Ne Change Rien (2005) [SHORT] 1/2 is on YouTube (6:30), where the opening song Rose (4:20) is in the film, while the rest is not. Unlike a YouTube rendition, however, nothing in the film ever feels that complete, but instead feels like the Basement Tapes rendition of scenes on the becoming of an artist. Never once do we feel Balibar is ready, but her quiet charm is effusive.