Cannes 2017: Mathieu Amalric’s Barbara

On Film / The Daily — May 20, 2017

“To fans of the mononymous Barbara—the delicate-voiced, emotionally acute French chanteuse adored by everyone from Jacques Brel to François Mitterand—Mathieu Amalric’s mega-meta, dreamily blurred biopic-within-a-film may seem a bemusing tribute to a national icon,” writes Guy Lodge at the top of his review of Barbara, which has opened Un Certain Regard this year. “To those unfamiliar with the singer and her work—which is to say the vast majority of people outside Francophone territory—this film is likely to be a more perplexing experience still: an elusive ghost of a celebrity portrait, a meditation on likeness and impersonation in which the subject, the actor and the performance become difficult to prise apart on screen.”

“Long before the film hits its wild stride,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies, “we’re introduced to the actress Jeanne Balibar playing an actress named Brigitte who has signed on to star in a film about Barbara directed by Mathieu Amalric playing a director called Yves (keep up!). The suggestion that this is a film on the pitfalls of capturing a real person’s life on celluloid is rendered moot, as the story then takes surreal swerves every few minutes and refuses to bow to convention. . . . There is no forward momentum, and little that connects one sequence to the next. And yet it works like gangbusters, largely down to Balibar’s astonishing central turn.”

As for Jay Weissberg at Variety, on the one hand, he admires “the way Amalric attempts to dissolve the borders between the real Barbara and Balibar’s Barbara, juxtaposing them against each other with projections and recordings, editing in footage from documentaries like Gérard Vergez’s Barbara ou Ma plus belle histoire d’amour until there are times when it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s recreation. Self-confident Brigitte is able to negotiate the blurred lines, but not so Yves, who’s asked, ‘Are you making a film about Barbara or about yourself?’ to which he answers, ‘It’s the same thing.’ Unfortunately for Barbara, these ideas don’t go anywhere, and apart from occasional highs linked to songs, such as a beautiful scene of Brigitte in silhouette at the piano singing ‘Je ne sais pas dire,’ there’s not much development here.”

“If Barbara doesn’t set out to recount a life, it certainly puts a life force on screen,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment. “I don’t know how accurate Balibar’s performance is, although the film emphasizes Brigitte’s close study of her model—her turns of phrase, her gestures, her bursts of actressy exuberance and petulance. Balibar—whose own work as a singer was the subject of Pedro Costa’s documentary Ne change rien—gives a majestically flamboyant performance as the singer on- and off-stage, evoking both vulnerability and the distant, knowingly enigmatic self-presentation that had Barbara dubbed ‘La Dame en Noir’ (think of her as a precursor of similarly moody and enraptured Laura Nyro). Balibar’s singing performances are moving and sometimes downright eerie, especially on troubling numbers like ‘Incestuous Loves.’”

“The entirety of Barbara feels like it was improvised with scribbles on napkins, in between whiskey-drenched monologues about the meaning of art and life, to a barman who just wants to close up shop and go home,” finds Nikola Grozdanovic at the Playlist.

“The filmmakers have enlisted some fine supporting players,” notes Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter, “but oddly neither Aurore Clément as Barbara’s gambling-addicted mother nor Grégoire 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.”

More from Dan Fainaru (Screen), Bénédicte Prot (Cineuropa), and Barbara Scharres (RogerEbert.com).

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