Sound of Music

Pedro Costa, Ne change rien, 2009, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Jeanne Balibar.

THE NOTION OF A PEDRO COSTA musical might seem incongruous in light of the Portuguese filmmaker’s best-known work: the stringent, momentous Fontainhas trilogy, about the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisbon slums (released earlier this year in a Criterion box set). But the hypnotic Ne change rien (2009), a black-and-white study of the French actress-turned-chanteuse Jeanne Balibar’s musical endeavors, is very recognizably a Costa film, from the sculpted lighting and precise compositions to the particular combination of sensuousness and severity, of tender immediacy and analytic distance.

Costa speaks often of the value of work and the daily grind—in describing the Fontainhas films, made in close collaboration with the neighborhood’s poor inhabitants, he has invoked the model of the old-Hollywood studios—and he brings a materialist focus to his subjects and the activities that consume them. The obvious point of comparison for Ne change rien is Costa’s 2001 documentary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, for which he holed up in the editing room with the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. But while that film was about a specific creative endeavor, the postproduction of the 1999 Straub-Huillet feature Sicilia!, this is a more free-form monument to artistic work process, composed of performances, rehearsals, and studio sessions.

Costa’s extreme chiaroscuro effects push his images to the verge of abstraction: Most scenes are submerged in inky darkness, barely illuminated by a single, sometimes offscreen light source. Balibar and her band are mere silhouettes at times; more often than not, at least half her face is in the shadows. The camera doesn’t move; the framing and lighting tend to render ambiguous the context of a performance. What matters is the moment. Even though a few of the songs ended up on Balibar’s 2006 album Slalom Dame, the movie resists a making-of trajectory. More than a music film, Ne change rien is a film that’s musical in form, and also one that’s utterly committed to filming music as a thing in itself.

Balibar has brought both to period roles (Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais [2007]) and to contemporary ones (Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life [1996]) a striking blend of poise and vulnerability, and this paradoxical allure extends to her singing: Her sultry voice has a pearly ring to it but it’s also a bit unsteady, and as a screen star in a world of music pros, she gives off a hint of diffidence. In scene after scene, Costa captures Balibar and her collaborators (most prominently, the guitarist Rodolphe Burger) as they work through long, looping jams, or break down a song into bars and phrases. Costa, a former musician, recognizes the sheer labor involved, most pointedly in a sequence that begins with a wordless vamp—Balibar, chain-smoking, tapping her knee, going da-da-dee-da-dum—and slowly layers on lyrics and instruments over the course of an obsessive, trancelike fifteen minutes. (Costa has said he’s noticed that the walkouts tend to start around here, “when the work begins.”) There are moments of comic exasperation, too, when the singer practices an Offenbach opera, accompanied by an off-screen voice coach whose running critiques (“Genoux doesn’t have three n’s”) provoke a curse under Balibar’s breath.

Above all, Costa has an uncanny feel for what it means to make music together. In one scene, Balibar reshapes and repeats a refrain—“peine perdue” (“pains in vain”)—wringing nuance from the dreamy incantation; Burger backs her up on guitar, singing softly. They never share a frame, but in cutting between a shot of Balibar and a reverse shot of Burger as they listen to the playback track, make adjustments, try again, crack each other up, stop, start again, Costa establishes the shivery intimacy of collaboration. (La Peine perdue is the title of an abandoned script by Jean Eustache, and Ne change rien’s neo-chanson repertoire includes, alongside a few Balibar-Burger originals, several film-buff choices: Kris Jensen’s “Torture,” immortalized in Scorpio Rising [1964]; the Johnny Guitar theme; “Weeping Willows,” from Chaplin’s A King in New York [1957].)

Costa’s films have inspired some fine and enthusiastic writing, but the director, an eloquent polemicist and keen cinephile, may be his own best critic and explicator. Anthology Film Archives is supplementing its run of Ne change rien with a carte blanche selection by Costa that doubles as terrific contextual criticism, connecting the movie’s ideas and gambits to other examples of portraiture and music films. The selections include Eustache’s rarely screened first feature, Numero Zero (1971), which consists mainly of an interview with the filmmaker’s grandmother, and a Thom Andersen double bill, pairing the new Get Out of the Car (2010) with - — (1967), his seminal experimental rock doc, codirected with Malcolm Brodwick. Jean-Luc Godard is represented not with One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968), the Stones-in-the-studio chronicle that Costa has cited as an inspiration for Ne change rien, but with the Jerry Lewis–inflected comic riff Soigne ta Droite (Keep Your Right Up, 1987), which features the noodlings of the electro-rock duo Les Rita Mitsouko. The one performance documentary in the series, also one of the acknowledged classics of the genre, is The Sound of Jazz, a 1957 CBS special that peaks with Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Fine and Mellow.” As Lester Young steps up to deliver a piercing, mournful sax solo, Holiday, perched on a stool, looks in his direction, listens, smiles, and responds. It’s as vivid an instance of artistic collaboration as has ever been filmed: a goose-bump moment involving two people and a third thing.

Pedro Costa’s Ne change rien has its New York theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives from November 3–16. For more details, click here.