On Thursday, Film Society Lincoln Center opened their ‘Rendez-vous with French Cinema’ with Mathieu Amalric’s latest biopic on Barbara, the renowned and extremely popular French singer.
When it opened at Cannes last May, it profoundly split the critics; some seeing it as a poetical masterpiece, others as a vague and deconstructed failure. Nonetheless, it has won the Cannes award for Poetry, an award created especially for it, and Jeanne Balibar, the main actress, won the César for best actress last week.
Some actors are reticent to star in biopics because of the sacrifice it entails. One such sacrifice is the image he/she had made of the person the biopic is the subject of. One sometimes feels a sort of melancholy, a mourning for a lost representation that you shall never truly capture or own again because the actor, the director of the biopic have supplanted, corrupted it with their own. Biopics, paradoxically, are profoundly iconoclast and we all cherish our icons.
But, with Mathieu Amalric’s latest film, spectators must be warned, the French director has disintegrated the usual tropes of biopics so much so that most of the French critic called this film the “anti-biopic.” Do not except the linear story of a life, do not expect a flat portrait, do not expect an explanation for this is a highly ambitious film. As Mr. Amalric said when he shyly came to introduce his film last Thursday: “Most of you Americans don’t know Barbara, and that’s perfect. This is not really a film about her, it is a film about creation, about interpretation and representation.”
The plot in itself, if there is one, is a succession of entanglements, of refined ‘Mise-en-abîme’ that serve the purpose of studying always more intrinsically the power, frontiers, and magic of cinema. Let me try and untangle it for you; Mr. Amalric plays a film director, passionate about Barbara and adapting Michel Tournier’s (a famous French author) book about her. Jeanne Balibar plays a Diva that has left the stage but comes back to play the role of Barbara. To summarize it is Mr. Amalric playing, in the film about Barbara he is directing, a film director trying to make a film on Barbara. Jeanne Balibar plays an actress trying to learn how to act and incarnate, body and soul the famous singer. Consequently, the spectator is promenaded through the multiple layers. He never really fully knows where he is, in what dimension of the film he finds himself. Barbara’s real voice recording could suddenly be taken up by Jeanne Balibar’s, to our great confusion. We never know when or where the actress will break character or even if she can. The spectator steps in and steps out of fiction until it doesn’t really matter anymore. The search, the interrogations becomes the subject of the film. It is also a film on the process of creation. One of the first scenes, and it is a long one, is just Jeanne Balibar as Barbara, in her apartment, at her piano, humming, writing. The following one is Jeanne Balibar with Amalric rehearsing a scene for the film, the director figuring out how to relay his vision, giving advice to the actress. And the spectator can only comply when the face of the director illuminates itself with the joy of having found the right stance, the right tone. These layers, these studies of what it means to create a representation do give the film a quasi-mystical and very poetic nature and pose it closer to a theoretical film than a biopic.
Indeed, this film is a very poetic one and it is in the nature of poetry to be obscure and indefinite. It never free willingly offers something to grab on to, an explanation, a clarification, and one can understand how this could become exasperating for such a long film to some spectators. The line between a poetical grace and a vulgar outpour of sentimentalism is also an extremely thin one and some could argue that it is, at time, crossed, or trampled on such as the scene in a cafe, where a song from Barbara comes on and a random man starts crying. Nevertheless, it is a film in which one can feel a lot of work and a lot of thought was sunk in. And although it might be a film for the happy few cineasts, it is the kind of filmmaking I would highly encourage.