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Actor-writer-director Mathieu Amalric and actor-singer Jeanne Balibar pay tribute to one of France’s most unusual and gifted mid-20th century chanteuses with Barbara. A self-eating snake of a movie about a director (Amalric) and a singer-actress (Balibar) trying themselves to make a movie about the French singer Barbara (who was born Monique Serf in 1930), this is a self-reflexive and sometimes screamingly self-indulgent work that’s strictly for hardcore French viewers and festivals. And yet, it still manages to be fitfully compelling, thanks especially to Balibar and the real Barbara, who died in 1997 but appears throughout via film clips and songs.
No doubt less forgiving viewers will gripe that this film barely has any plot, a position impossible to dispute. It meanders along Parisian bridges and streets, and through provincial towns and film sets, barely bothering its pretty little head with such mundane concerns as character development, story beats or resolution. Indeed, the vibe is reminiscent of the similarly desultory and oddly charming On Tour, the feature Amalric made two movies back (before the more mainstream mystery-thriller The Blue Room) about a French promoter taking a gaggle of American burlesque performers to venues around the country.
However, there’s something admirably honest about the meta-method Amalric and co-writer Philippe Di Folco have chosen. For one thing, the constant glimpses of the real Barbara performing on stage or in the films she made herself (at one point she effectively sings a “duet” with Balibar) does something very few conventional musical biopics ever do: It truly honors the subject’s genius by letting the work literally speak for itself.
Meanwhile, Balibar, playing acclaimed actress Brigitte, who has been hired by Amalric’s Yves to play Barbara for his film-within-the-film, gets to show off her not inconsiderable musical talent with interpretations of Barbara’s songs. It’s obvious that Balibar doesn’t have Barbara’s range or purity of tone, but she’s rather good at mimicking the phrasing, demonstrating a real musician’s reverence for another artist’s work. (Pedro Costa’s documentary Change Nothing showcases Balibar’s own songwriting skills with his characteristic exhaustively long takes.)
She’s even better at mimicking Barbara’s odd, mincing gestures, her airy grandeur that disguised a terrible fragility, wrought by a dreadful childhood spent hiding from the Nazis and later being abused by her father. Physically, with her whip-thin figure and angular features, she’s a fine fit for the striking-looking Barbara, who could rock a black feathered robe like nobody’s business. Pascaline Chavanne’s slouchy, textural costumes, an album’s worth of knitwear tone poems, provide visual interest during some of the duller stretches.
The filmmakers have enlisted some fine supporting players to come along for the ride, but oddly neither Aurore Clement as Barbara’s gambling-addicted mother nor Gregoire Colin as her long-suffering manager Charley Marouani are used to much effect. French jazz accordionist Vincent Peirani fares a little better with more screen time and chances to show off his musical chops as Barbara’s regular collaborator Roland Romanelli — although Yves, played by the diminutive Amalric, complains that the towering Peirani is too tall to play Romanelli, prompting chuckles from the audience.
Production companies: A Waiting for Cinema, Gaumont, France 2 Cinema, Aliceleo production
Cast: Jeanne Balibar, Mathieu Amalric, Vincent Peirani, Fanny Imber, Aurore Clement, Gregoire Colin
Director: Mathieu Amalric
Screenwriters: Mathieu Amalric, Philippe Di Folco
Producer: Patrick Godeau
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Laurent Baude
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Francois Gedigier
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
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