At the 2009 AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles, Pedro Costa introduced his latest documentary, Ne Change Rien, expressing that he sought to make a film about the process of creating music. In so doing, he captured his friend, who, disillusioned with the caliber of roles offered to her as an actress, decided to pursue singing. With films such as Juventude Em Marche (Colossal Youth, 2006) and No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2000) the majority of Costa’s recent work has focused on the marginalised and poverty stricken in his native Portugal—so it is intriguing that his new subject is French actress, Jeanne Balibar.
While close followers of the filmmaker might imagine a parallel between this current venture and his lesser-known piece, Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) about the editing and discussions between duo, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet during the making of Sicilia!, Ne Change Rien leans closer to Costa’s fiction. Distinctly different in content and form, it is not about dialogue, humor, theoretical discourse, the clarity of images, or the pay-off of hard work. Rather, it is a solitary, meandering, and uncertain film—an unusual, fascinating fusion of documentary and fiction that blurs the genres by placing real people into a filmmaker’s hyper-stylized, dreamlike world.
Widely known for her roles in a range of international films, I fondly remember Jeanne Balibar for her performance as Antoinette de Navarreins in Jacques Rivette’s unrequited love story, Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais, 2007). Playing a 19th century high society lady turned cloistered nun, she realises her part with precision, passion, and a lingering vulnerability. Entangled in torrid, adulterous feelings for a rough, brutally alluring military General, Antoinette’s yearning is gracefully portrayed as it crescendos to the point where her faith and heart are severely at ends. Balibar translates Antoinette’s stubborn refusal to give in to love with a depth, sincerity, and fragility that seem instinctive. As an actress, she carries with her an intellectual awareness and seriousness that are rare. The daughter of a French Marxist philosopher and a physicist, Balibar is invested in producing thought-provoking, high caliber work, disclosing that she admires the self-directed, naturalistic techniques of screen icon, Louise Brooks.
Now in Costa’s creation, she plays herself—a chain-smoking, mysterious, soulful- eyed chanteuse with a profound commitment to her music. Not so far removed from Antoinette, Balibar exhibits an intensity that is both fueled and tortured by her relentless quest to find meaning in the everyday. She seeks to live authentically, using her voice as a language to express her truths. Ne Change Rien is about the condition of creating and the trance-like qualities of making music—about notes, rhythm, duration, pacing, friction, seduction, and misery. Within this, it follows Balibar as she explores, struggles, and immerses herself in her newfound practice. Distilling fragments of her experiences, surroundings, and memories through song, she has a nostalgic, faraway sensibility that Costa latches onto and illuminates with a unique poignancy. A muse to Costa, Balibar sets the tone and tempo of the film, searching to realise her creative potential by independently studying classical voice and being part of an avant-garde musical collective.
Balibar, guitarist Rudolphe Burger and band members, compose and adapt melodies ridden with a calm sadness—about things such as the torture of love and the devil within. Appropriating tunes by Kenneth Anger and Jean-Luc Godard, among others, they tread a territory where gloom, uncertainly, and existential truths are revealed with little compromise. Comparably, Costa’s films are in a similar sphere. A friend and colleague, he records them with empathy—establishing a low-key, provocative, very rigorous aesthetic that is propelled by the hopes, desires, and fears of his subjects. Working personally and intuitively, he absorbs the group’s nuances, words, and silences, depicting their interrelations as they brainstorm, rehearse, and perform. Situating them in what resembles an isolated vacuum extending into the dark, one never sees their audiences or the outside world. Costa concentrates on them, and them alone, proposing a challenging, meditative cinema uninterested in pretense. During one scene in a backstage green room, lyricising to a phrase from Gertrude Stein, Balibar rehearses, “a rose, is a rose, is a rose.” Stein once remarked that she intended this to mean realizing the existence of living the “intensity of anyone’s existence” (1) and Costa seizes this notion. Drowning in the band’s enveloping sounds, he places us in the underbelly of their projects and experiments, as they sift through their emotions, conflicts, and curiosities, into the unknown.
Infusing each shot with patient, meticulous, and sensitive attention to composition, light, and the internal sensibilities of his subjects, Costa offers a hypnotic, introspective portrait concerned more with artistic process and the woman at it’s center, rather than with resolve. Going beyond a conventional observational format, he encloses Balibar and collaborators in an alternative reality stripped of colour, with hardly discernible references to space and time. The resulting effect draws one progressively deeper into the musical core and behavioural dynamics of the band, particularly to Balibar’s persona.
Opening with the image of Balibar’s lone, abstracted figure singing on stage surrounded by a velvety darkness, Costa sets the scene for a film which will take its time to reveal or perhaps never deliver a story, but with a beauty so extraordinary it is difficult to look away. The film’s pacing is slow, sometimes torturously so, but honest in depicting the drudgery and obsession involved in the musical process. He keeps us in our seats with his intimate, luscious black and white imagery, which in itself is an inspiring study of the textural and poetic potential of digital video. Noting that he transfers his regular DV to 35mm, Costa is invested in deciphering how to produce a film as unobtrusively and informally as possible to still achieve an all-encompassing, striking visual experience.
His aesthetic method is grounded in pushing the grain and contours of his images to accent the psychologies of his subjects as well as his own. Reminiscent of the cinematography and attitude employed by the great Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, Costa’s chiaroscuro lighting intensifies, heightens and simultaneously has the effect of obscuring Balibar and her collaborators. They drift through their surroundings spanning an attic in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines to a Tokyo café, oftentimes half-lit, in uninterrupted close-up, emerging and disappearing from blackness. Contrasted, rich, and smoky, the atmosphere Costa creates is breathtaking and murky—with melancholic long takes and endless blacks evocative of Caravaggio, cut with shimmery whites creating a mood of polarities and raw sensations.
While Costa fittingly cites Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 hyper-political counter-culture documentary, One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil) as an influence and basis for his film, there are also similarities to his approach in the subtler, early practice and performance footage of pianist, Glenn Gould. In these glimpses, low, canted camera angles and the use of black and white stock erase peripheries to concentrate solely on the energy encapsulated in concert. Costa’s consistent, attentive use of close-ups also brings to mind Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Josef von Sternberg’s dramatic, glistening 1934 The Scarlet Empress, where an emphasis on facial features is used to look inward at both a character and one’s self in permeating, unforgettable ways. Explaining his intentions behind a particular, gorgeous tableau featuring two older Japanese women looking into his camera in a coffee shop, Costa has remarked that this scene happened after visiting filmmaker, Mikio Naruse’s grave. There are undeniable stylistic connections between Costa, Naruse, and some of the transcendental Japanese filmmakers. Grasping the cinematic history that has paved the way for his work, Costa rouses an original, truly contemporary take on the music genre, insisting on an emotionally-charged, heavy mise-en-scène that is steadfast, reflective, and unlike any other.
Just as directors have filmed, even loved their actresses with bewitching framing and lighting, so too does Costa. With unwavering rigor, attuned to her idiosyncrasies, he depicts Jeanne Balibar with an enigmatic allure and an inherent glamour. In moments, it is possible that Costa presses his fingers on his lens to sculpt with light and add a soft, visceral haze around her. During an interview with Daniel Kasman of “The Auteurs” in June of this year, Costa mentions that “she’s certainly the actress today I most admire,” subsequently confirming that Ne Change Rien is “a film about form…and it’s Jeanne’s form.” (2) A nocturnal siren—pensive, brooding, and heavy hearted, she is both mesmerizing and exhausting to watch. In a trance himself, Costa hangs on her every gesture, as Balibar keeps us at a distance, her music a barrier in-between. Costa’s film takes the female gaze seriously. He respects Balibar and lets her be, without imposing expectations, showing pieces of her personality—somewhat lost, unsettled, but determined to find her place.
Balibar’s voice is unconventional and beautifully flawed—and if she wants, seductive too. Balibar sings compulsively, repeating melodies, making efforts to relate and connect with her band mates in a circular, never ending pattern that delivers no end. There is an almost numbing scene where she replays and hums a verse in a “da, da ,dee, dum” configuration for over ten minutes. Here, Costa presents her in a dreamlike state, trying to extricate a song. Spending lengths of time with her collaborators, she is dedicated to refining her talents. Gliding from one endeavour to another, we also see her slip in and out of frame, rehearsing for a stage production of Offenbach’s “La Perichole.” Developing and informing her singing, she takes classical lessons, straining to reach difficult notes—one can notice the veins in her neck contract with every high pitch. We are reminded of the demands of her practice, but also question why this rebellious chanteuse even cares about traditional training, ridden with rules and limitations she breaks in her experimental music. It is clear that Balibar has a brutal, self-critical work ethic, desiring excellence, but of the truest, deepest kind. Unconcerned with delusions of grandeur, pursuing a path rooted in personal happiness, she wants to be able to star in an opera as much as she can a show. Ne Change Rien suspends her voice in a timeless way—making anyone who has ever embarked on an equally impassioned creative endeavour re-live the brutalities, torments, and self-sacrifice involved.
Audiences have been divided over this new work, some loving, others loathing it for it’s repetitiveness and insistence in dwelling in the transitional, uneventful phases of Balibar’s career. In the past, Costa’s films have been referred to as “miserablism,”(3) because the director deliberately refuses to contrive formal narrative structures that betray the resonance of his real experiences and relationships. He believes that his subjects and their realities are in themselves enough—that pure cinema is achieved by sitting in some of the darkest, dampest crevices of society and that this is the substance that touches one’s psyche in enlightening, meaningful ways. This unapologetic filmmaking brings with it a strength that, if given the chance, has the potential to provoke genuine reflection and stay in the thoughts of audiences—and this is what Ne Change Rien achieves. Walking away, leaving the cinema behind, one’s all-consuming physical reaction to the film and self-awareness are precisely what makes Costa’s cinema so relevant and haunting. His work is arresting, draining, and not digestible—affecting us intrinsically.
Ne Change Rien is a bold music documentary, which pulls us into Balibar’s world without conforming. Pedro Costa offers us a film that prosaically depicts in spellbinding, tedious detail the creative lives of his subjects in their connect, disconnect, beauty, and torture. As the title, taken from an expression in Godard’s L’Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998) conveys, this is a film that goes nowhere. It is not about change. It sits in a purgatory, in the static, and monotonous. Costa’s ingenuity as a filmmaker lies in his ability to so resonantly and courageously interpret this. One hopes Pedro Costa will find distribution for this film, or a means of showing it for a run in major cities—but, even if he doesn’t, this film exists in the every day, in ourselves.
- William Wasserstrom, “The Sursymamericubealism of Gertrude Stein”, Twentieth Century Literature (Essays on Surrealism), 21:1 (1975), pp. 90-106. Published by Hofstra University.
- Daniel Kasman, “Digital Fugitive: Interview with Pedro Costa,” The Auteurs, 2008—2009. June 16 2009.
- Peter Bradshaw, “Pedro Costa, the Samuel Beckett of Cinema,” The Guardian Film Blog. Guardian News and Media. 2009. September 17 2009.