Change Nothing (Ne Change Rien) (Portugal, 2009) is a very singular music documentary, miles away from standard interview-and-concert-footage profiles. The bulk of the film presents French actress and singer Jeanne Balibar as she works through various avant pop/rock-ish songs in the studio, but it features a few live performances as well, and snippets of her rehearsal and performance of Jacques Offenbach’s opera bouffe ‘La Périchole.’
The film is directed by Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, whose films are distinguished by a blending of documentary reportage presentation with fictional narratives. He generally favors a slow series of well-composed, somewhat static long shots rather than the series of rapidly-edited multiple shots that make up the visual narrative of most conventional films. This is oversimplification, of course, but it’s a good general description of the stark visual palette he employs here. The entire film is in black-and-white, and, while it’s been shot digitally, the images still contain a grainy softness that compliment Balibar’s languorous vocal style and the compositional abstractions of her inventive band.
Costa’s compositions don’t always match the attitudes of the actual songs, though. He’s far more interested in the rigor of creation and the interplay between musicians, most notably Balibar’s guitarist and fellow composer Rodolphe Burger. Loose, bouncy and productively self-amused, Burger is a good foil for the hardworking and self-deprecating Balibar. They obviously enjoy working together, but the work is front and center. There’s an extended sequence where Jeanne and Rodolphe rehearse as a duet; she’s trying to lock in a melodic rhythm over a particular guitar line, and it seems to take forever for her to feel confident about it. We soon discover why – when we hear the song’s accompanying backing tracks in entirety, we learn it’s an aggressively polyrhythmic song with samples from ‘Superfly’ thrown in, and Balibar’s earlier insistent repetitions make perfect nuts-and-bolts sense to us.
Another oft-rehearsed song is ‘Pain’s In Vain,’ a slow ballad that’s an equally good showcase of the Balibar-Burger non-verbal school of mutual listening and reacting. In a brilliant recording scene, Costa fractures the song between the lush backing tracks we hear in the producer’s board room, and the silent studio that Balibar sings in alone, listening to the backing tracks on headphones. It’s a surprisingly poignant scene that takes full advantage of what a film can do beyond just documenting the process.
And then we’re at rehearsal for her role as La Périchole, the street-singing waif who inadvertently enchants a rich and selfish Viceroy, an entirely different musical challenge. Balibar’s vocal coach for the opera works her very hard and very quickly, alternately barking out tutelage and encouragement on each and every line of the song. As in a few earlier scenes, it’s shot as a close-up on her face throughout, and her earnest efforts are as draining for us as they obviously are for her.
It can be a tough film for viewers who are used to the visual rhythms of American films. Costa is quite good at giving us a unique view of the countless details present in a single sustained moving image, both human and inanimate. And his sense of light and composition is gorgeous. But the uninitiated will feel like they’ve been staring at the same damned thing for three or four minutes. And they have been, but it’s OK. And Balibar, who is prodigiously talented, employs a singing style that American listeners may find to be lazy-sounding or uncommitted. There’s a languid, cabaret-spawned Gainsbourgian talking-singing aspect where the singer seems to pull notes up from underneath, sometimes a little behind the beat, sometimes flat-sounding. The closest equivalent I can think of would be Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, another full-throated high-alto who works damned hard to make it sound so effortless. It takes a little getting used to, but its seductive validity as expression is undeniable.
Costa and Balibar had been shooting and posting this film off-and-on since 2005, and only assembled the complete feature a year or so ago. I have a feeling this won’t see frequent screenings in the U.S. in the future; I hope I’m wrong about that. It’ll eventually be on DVD, but it’ll be a whole different experience from a big screen in a dark room with an intimately proximate audience. Nonetheless, Costa’s film is beautiful to behold, and is an admirable document of the hard work and tenacity that goes into making good art and performance.
‘Change Nothing’ (Ne Change Rien) is part of the European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It screens Friday, March 11th at 6:00 P.M., and also Thursday, March 17th at 8:15 P.M.