Judge Daryl Loomis never changes his socks.
Why do you torture me so?
My previous experiences with director Pedro Costa (Colossal Youth) has been vérité films about poverty-stricken people smoking drugs for long, long stretches of time. His films are excellent and he's an important figure in modern artistic cinema, but I've never found his scope particularly broad. That perception is different now after seeing Ne Change Rien. Part concert film and part portrait of an artist, his documentary of Jeanne Balibar is simply lovely.
Years ago, when Balibar was transitioning from her acting career (she appeared in such films as Va Savoir and Sade) into music, a mutual friend introduced her to Pedro Costa. With shared interests, they quickly became friends. Costa had long wanted to work with her on a film and, finally, when she started work on her second album, he had his chance. Bringing his camera into the studio and to her shows, he documented the experience.
Shot in starkly beautiful black and white, Costa derives a timeless fell out of Ne Change Rien. He features three basic types of shots in the film, and all are extremely effective. As she works in the studio with her band, Costa pulls back to wide shots to show the creative process of the entire team while they work out beats, guitar lines, and lyrics. The frustrations and ultimate joy of creation within a group are evident as they laugh, argue, and finally get the result they want. These scenes remind me strongly of Wim Wenders's great Teatro, which documented the recording of Willie Nelson's last great album. We then see these results in action during the concert footage. The more polished, practiced versions are shown in totally arresting live performances. Balibar's willowy frame sways with the dark jazz-pop strains of her band while her smoky, lilting, sometimes growling voice soars over the tunes. Costa places the viewer in the audience, giving us steady shots rather than over-edited three camera techniques to allow the rhythms of the band to shine through. Finally, we have the most beautiful parts of the film, in which Costa focuses directly on Balibar as she practices or performs in studio. Closeups of her face and body are abstracted through varying degrees of shadow and light, where her lips or her eyes or a shoulder is all that's lit with the rest of the frame obscured in blackness. Here, Costa really shows his skill. These static, simple shots are entrancing photographic material, perfectly framed and lit to get just the right type and amount of emotion.
Ne Change Rien is unlike Costa's other work in many ways, but the one big parallel line is also what makes hims such a good filmmaker. Whether sitting with Balibar in her studio as she sings or sitting with Vanda from Colossal Youth as she smokes heroin, there is a real and unobtrusive sense that we are flies on the wall as events happen. Costa doesn't distance himself from the action; his subjects, whether documentary or fiction, seem perfectly at ease with his presence in the room. They act as they normally would and his films, hard to watch in many cases and very easy here, have an unusual warmth to them. Ne Change Rien is a fantastic documentary that beckons you in, welcomes you to sit and listen to some lovely music, and introduces you to some new friends. Great stuff.
Supplementing the film is a great disc from Cinema Guild. The image is in its intended full frame with a beautifully rendered transfer. The contrast is quite sharp, blacks are inky and deep while whites are stark and bright with little gray between them. At the very beginning of the film, there is a tiny bit of haloing around some lights peeking through the dark, but I strong suspect this was Costa's vision. The sound is also very good, though maybe not as superb as the picture. Still, the music comes through strong and clear in all channels and the the live performances are immersive in the mix. The film is subtitled for all dialog, bu only sparingly during the songs, which are about half in French and half in English. They're only used when necessary; we don't need to know the exact words to understand the poetry of the songs.
There aren't copious extras on the discs, but I love what is here. Three extra live performances serve as deleted scenes, and all are worthy of the film, if not necessary. Eight musical sketches by Balibar, in a style she calls "Tronomettes," show her songwriting skill. A mixture of French pop vocals and minimalist electro beats are called her invention on the disc, though I wouldn't go so far. They're cool tracks, regardless. An eight minute short film by Costa, called "The End of a Love Affair," is closer to what I'm familiar with from the director, that is, a guy standing at a window motionless the whole time. That might sound boring, but I've sure spent longer than that staring into space under breakup circumstances. Trailers round us out.
Esthetically, Ne Change Rien is Pedro Costa's finest work. It may not have the political or social weight that his fiction does, but it's a gorgeous film. Give me a smoky French woman singing "Johnny Guitar" over dark pop accompaniment, and I guarantee that I fall in love, and this is the best concert documentary that I've seen in a very long time.
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