Pedro Costa's 'Ne change rien' unfolds as a visual album.

Costa's 'Ne change rien' Captures Singer's Dreaminess, Rigor

Sara Dosa January 20, 2011

In Ne change rien (Change Nothing), the documentary composed of French singer Jeanne Balibar's recording sessions that screens at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this week, Balibar comments, “We should really try to bring out the silences." Portuguese director Pedro Costa—with a counter-intuitive yet compelling modus operandi for a music documentary—does indeed brings out the silences in Balibar's work and in his film. Ne change rien forgoes action for stillness, light and color for darkness—giving weight to the quiet spaces that define and shape artistic practice. Costa constructs a sparse, entrancing and intimate study of Balibar’s rigor and craft.

Ne change rien unfolds as a visual album: each track is a rehearsal, recording session or performance of one of Balibar’s songs, ordered by a musical rhythm and aesthetic composition rather than any kind of narrative build. We are never told anything about Balibar’s life, her acting career, her childhood, her motivations or musical inspirations. Instead, the languid imagery, painted in coal blacks and bone whites, guides us through a visceral experience. We come to know Balibar’s struggles with perfecting her music; we witness her wrestle with tempo and pitch, minding demanding vocal coaches and sitting with slow melodies. Rarely do we ever see Balibar’s full face—it’s most often obscured by shadows or Costa’s other compositional plays. Yet we experience her hurdles, her process. And that makes us feel close.

The film opens with the three-person band on stage shrouded in darkness. Lights overhead appear fat and round like hole-punched stars casting a subtle sheen upon the musicians below. An angelic figure, outlined in silver, croons in a deep resonant voice, “Torture, you’re torturing me,”—the lyrics of Kris Jensen’s melancholy. The camera stays locked in place on this image throughout the course of the entire song. None of the three musicians ever come fully into view, even as the audience’s applause rises up at the end.

Next, we meet Balibar in a darkened recording studio. Cloaked in inky shadows, she remains barely visible; a slice of white light just reveals her doe eyes and porcelain cheekbone. She slowly breathes the song “Cinéma” while her off-screen collaborator and guitarist Rodolphe Burger prompts her with the lyrics. She repeats the words over and over branding them into memory.

In the 10-minute scene that follows, Balibar painstakingly taps out the tempo to another song. With the measured focus, she counts “Un, deux, trois, quatre. Un, deux, trois, quatre,” then sings the same four notes on an endless loop. She admits difficulty. Her strained concentration is palpable. Your muscles tense along with hers as you endure her routine. And still, in another scene, a vocal coach lambastes her, interrupting nearly every note. “It’s about precision!” the coach demands off-screen. The camera bolted in place, stares straight ahead at Balibar. She nearly quits the session.

Balibar’s rigorous training, though, is tempered by soft moods. The same vocal coach that instructs precision also encouraged her to “Stay on this wondrous, dreamy side.” She does so, especially while performing. While singing “Cette Nuit” onstage, she glows with a kind of ethereal ease; a seductive tranquility that is also reflected in the lyrics. “The time has come to dive in again into the mists,” she sings, drinking in a cigarette.

The wondrous, dreamy side plays out in Costa’s imagery as well. By obscuring significant portions of the frame in shadow, he creates abstracted compositions that place you within a surreal world. In one shot, a swath of light across the floor bounces off parts of objects in a cluttered room. Pieces are illuminated: the top of a chair, perhaps a piano bench, but we are never sure. The rest remains pitch black. Minutes pass in the still darkness, while disembodied voices discuss love and marriage off screen. It’s disjunctive, but soothing. Costa plays with space and depth in this way; you never quite know where you are.

The co-mingling of these two contrasting elements—hard observation and faraway flight—comprises Balibar’s creative practice. It suggests both technical exactitude and subjective mood are necessary to cultivate art. Costa’s own precise camerawork, which captures blacks and whites, sound and silence, suggests this dialectical swing between poles. The content of his film succinctly fits his form. In essence, the content (and its title) state “Ne change rien—change nothing.” Despite the constant coaching, training and repetition, Balibar’s method is the way to hone a craft. This is the process, the path to art.

Ne change rien opens at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Thursday, January 20, 7:30 p.m. and plays again on Sunday, January 23, 2:00 p.m.