After Dark, My Sweet
By Damon Smith
Ne change rien
Dir. Pedro Costa, Portugal
No mere documentary, Portuguese director Pedro Costa’s enthralling Ne change rien is a cinematic offering laid at the feet of its bewitching singer-star, Jeanne Balibar. She’s glimpsed at music rehearsals, live club performances, and in studio sessions, meticulously honing vocal phrases and adjusting tempo with exactly the same attention to precision that Costa brings to his own rigorously arranged compositions. The lithe, luminous actress has a robust career in France, where she’s appeared in films by Jacques Rivette (Va savoir) and Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life... ) as well as numerous theater productions. She also moonlights as a chanteuse (or perhaps it’s the other way around), fronting a crackerjack quartet whose whirring loops and effects-driven guitar textures create a coolly luxuriant cushion for her throaty songs of tortured love. An ardent cinephile, Costa has cited Godard’s One Plus One as an inspiration for his approach here, which eschews voiceover and interviews in favor of moody, atmospheric detail and abundant use of long takes. But he also applies the distinctive, low-light visual style he developed for In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, a tack that aligns this sultry music doc as much with the mise-en-scène of classic cinema (Von Sternberg, Nick Ray) and T Magazine–style fashion portraiture as it does with Straub-Huillet (a salient touchstone for the auteurist director) or ultrahip band-in-the-studio genre artistry.
In 2005, Costa shot a 12-minute backstage rehearsal with Balibar for a short (later included on a Japanese box set), then expanded the material for this feature. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white on digital video, Ne change rien is a masterwork of chiaroscuro lighting, a study in the void between the visible and invisible: faces and objects, partially illuminated by conic rays and lambent moons from a single light source (a window, a keylight), gleam in the primordial darkness. The footage, captured entirely indoors, often in cramped spaces with low-angle fixed-camera shots, is bathed in nightfall, an immersive technique that makes spatial depth appear chasmic and the sonic textures that emerge from within it hard to resist. To call it a “concert film” is misleading, since the three live performances we do see in their gauzy, dreamlike entirety (a smoky rendition of “Torture” kicks off the film) comprise only a fraction of screen time. The film is instead an homage to the creative process of Balibar and her collaborators (French art-rock hero Rodolphe Burger, formerly of Kat Onoma, is the band’s guitarist and de facto music director) and a trancelike experiment in pure-cinema aesthetics.
Costa’s use of the long-take form in Ne change rien gives him ample room to foreground the role that repetition and variation play in the mysterious alchemy of music-making. Most of these process sequences center on Balibar’s attempts to master tempo, phrasing, breath control, and in one amusing interlude, the stern directives of an off-screen voice coach picking apart every syllable of her vocalizations as she rehearses for a stage production of Offenbach’s La Périchole. (“Make your consonants lighter, it’s not an elegy,” the older female instructor says, stopping every half-measure to correct her pitch and pronunciation until Balibar, exhausted, loses her patience and swears.) While it’s charming to watch Balibar, normally a model of sleek poise and Gallic sophistication, recoil from the absurdity of such self-disciplinary tedium, elsewhere she comes across as a committed artist who relishes the challenge of squaring her limited range as a soloist with the equally daunting demands of professional recording and songwriting.
Balibar and Costa are both perfectionists who aren’t willing to take short cuts (in his case, quite literally) in achieving their vision. In one marathon sequence that neatly defines their mutually compatible pace and artistic ambition, Balibar sits with Burger listening to a sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly,” trying out a complicated, countermelodic vocal line over the funky, syncopated rhythm track. She repeats the da-de-dum riff countless times as the minutes tick by (Costa’s camera, locked in a medium shot, never moves), inducing a fugue state in anyone with the patience to sit and listen to the ensorcelling sound pattern, composed of a handful of notes that eventually form the bedrock of a vampy number. (This scene was the breaking point for several people who elected to flee an already sparsely attended press screening.) Costa’s high regard for Balibar is unmistakable, both in the way he lights her (a Dietrich-esque close-up in the sessions for “Cinéma”) and the glacial stretches of time he allows to pass while observing her at work. Paradoxically, given the music-doc’s almost built-in excitations (big personalities, dysfunctional band dynamics), Ne change rien is a quiet film with modest aims to match its stately, ultra-low-key vibe. Yet Costa’s ingenious command of light and shadow, as well as his intuitive grasp of the powers of duration and precise framing, is another grand testament to his innovative and uncompromising handicraft.