By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
“A Pedro Costa musical — now, what would that be like?” I asked in these pages two years ago when the Portuguese filmmaker, appearing at REDCAT for the first-ever Los Angeles retrospective of his work, unveiled a 12-minute preview of his in-progress film about French actress and chanteuse Jeanne Balibar. Last May in Cannes, when Costa premiered the complete, feature-length version of Ne Change Rien, the answer was obvious: not like any musical you’ve ever seen before. Indeed, as with almost all of Costa’s work, the more you try to stick a label on his black-and-white study of Balibar in various stages of performance — “backstage documentary,” “concert film,” etc. — the more it evades capture, each new descriptor seeming at once inadequate and altogether too limiting. Is Ne Change Rien live, or is it Memorex? Only this much is certain: It is an experience.
The project, which grew out of a three-way friendship between Costa, Balibar and the late sound recordist Philippe Morel (to whom the film is dedicated), was shot piecemeal over a period of several years, as Balibar and musical collaborators (including guitarist/songwriter Rodolphe Burger) gigged around Europe and Asia and rehearsed material for her 2006 sophomore album, Slalom Dame. The result is an acutely perceptive film about the process of artistic creation, composed almost entirely of those moments that other films about performers omit or reduce to crassly compressed montages. In short, Costa, who previously documented husband-and-wife filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in the 2001 feature Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, focuses on the work — the physical, emotional and psychological toil that goes into writing a lyric, perfecting a melody, interpreting a passage. Where most performance films — indeed, most performances — are about the seamlessness of the end product, Ne Change Rien endeavors to show us the seams. (At its first AFI Fest screening, Ne Change Rien will be preceded by Staub’s latest short, Le Streghe, Femmes entre elles.)
“The first time we showed the film, in Cannes, what I saw was that people started to walk out exactly when the work begins,” Costa told me earlier this month, sipping a beer and smoking a cigarette on the terrace of Lincoln Center’s newly renovated Alice Tully Hall, where Ne Change Rien was screening as part of the New York Film Festival. Tall and slender with mostly gray hair, dressed from head to toe in black, the 50-year-old Costa speaks in a low, ellipses-filled paragraphs that he seems to consider and reconsider even as he is speaking them. “In the beginning, there’s a bit of music,” he continued, “but when shit happens — I mean, when you have to concentrate, and Jeanne is not getting there, and the band is getting worried — that’s when I heard a couple of guys walking out and saying, ‘Oh, it started so nicely, but then. ...’”
For much of Ne Change Rien, Costa takes us inside Burger’s home recording studio, near the French-German border, as Balibar and company try out multiple variations on the Slalom Dame material (including, appropriately, one song titled “Cinéma”). It is, Costa said, where the idea for the film truly began to coalesce, “because those were more than rehearsals. They were inventing and trying things. Some songs you hear in the film are not on the record.” Then, in a a remarkable nine-minute shot, Costa shows Balibar taking detailed notes from an offscreen vocal coach while rehearsing for the title role in a 2008 production of Jacques Offenbach’s 19th-century opéra buffe, La Périchole. The teacher frequently interrupts Balibar’s performance, breaking it down line by line, measure by measure, to the singer’s — and some audience members’ — visible frustration.
“I thought she was very, very courageous in this singing,” Costa said. “I mean, this is an opera that Teresa Berganza sings; you can buy the EMI CD. But it takes a bit of courage just to sing. Singing is ... yeah, you could almost say that it’s the first thing, it’s even before language, and that connects back the Straubs, because they’re very suspect of language.” And like Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, Ne Change Rien is also, by turns, a love story. “These looks they give to one another, Rodolphe and Jeanne ... everybody in Cannes thought they were lovers,” he said. “That’s okay. They are not. They’re good friends, but something happens ... it’s the work that creates a little bit this loving thing.”
Costa’s films have never been — and never will be — for everyone. Stationed somewhere between documentary and fiction, they demand an active, critical viewer willing to consider moving images in the same complex, constantly evolving terms that Costa does, whether he is observing a creative personality at work, or illustrating the realities (and fantasies) of dispossessed Cape Verdean immigrants in the crumbling Lisbon housing slum of Fontainhas. The focus of Costa’s three best-known features — Ossos, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth — and two subsequent shorts, it is a terrain he has now mapped as indelibly as John Ford’s Monument Valley, complete with its own resident stock company. Commercial distribution has proven elusive for the filmmaker. Early next year, the Criterion Collection will release a DVD box set of Costa’s complete Fontainhas works, all of them available for the first time in the U.S.
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