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'Barbara': Cannes Review

Mathieu Amalric directs and also plays the director of a film about the iconic French singer

Dir. Mathieu Amalric. France, 2017. 98mins

This is a loving tribute not only to the late Barbara (1930-97), the inimitable singing icon of the French chanson, but also to the star of this film, Jeanne Balibar, whose brilliant performance is boosted here by her uncanny physical resemblance to the late“Dame en noir”, as Barbara used to be called by her admirers.

Barbara fans will love it, even if the rest may well wonder what is it all about

The actor Mathieu Amalric, who won Best Director at Cannes in 2010 with On Tour directs again, and co-stars with Balibar, his ex-wife. Anything but a classic biopic, this attempt to capture various stages of pre-production, rehearsals, research, and the actual shooting of a forthcoming film is not that easy to follow. But once the viewer realises that this is not about Barbara’s life but her Barbara’s magic and genius, it’s easier to get comfortable and enjoy the show.

Targeting mainly the Francophone market, already familiar and very much in love with Barbara’s repertoire, the picture may fall on deaf ears elsewhere. The peculiar lightness, breezy sadness, intricate poetry and unique delivery of this artist hasn’t really been known to travel much beyond the borders of her own homeland.

One evening after opening Cannes with his portrayal of a filmmaker in Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Phantoms, Mathieu Amalric directs himself playing a filmmaker again, this time the feverishly agitated Yves Zand, obsessed by both the subject he is about to treat and the actress he is working with.

With a different hairdo but with the same haunted look as Desplechin’s picture, he is seen digging into documents, listening to recordings, and interviewing former Barbara associates while his lead actress Brigitte (Balibar), goes through much the same process. She studies every detail of the real-life character she is about to play, painstakingly imitating the singer’s inflections of voice and her unpredictable gestures, meeting the people she knew, going on a pilgrimage to the farm Barbara where she stayed in later years. She gradually immerses herself in the character to the point that, every once in a while, one can’t tell her apart from the singer she plays.

Shot in the same sympathetic but rather chaotic manner that defined Amalric’s last feature film, The Blue Room, the picture’s backbone remains the distinctive, very particular talent of the late singer, the unusual flavor of her lyrics and music, her unpredictable phrasing which lent every single one of the songs she performed a distinctive quality of its own and the peculiar nature of her stage performances, always dressed in black and hiding behind dark glasses. 

If there is a development line of a kind in the picture, it is mostly that of watching Balibar (who happens to be also a professional singer) shed layers of her personality to blend into the part she plays. The extent of the effort she invested to make this transition stands out on the soundtrack, whenever her own voice rubs elbows with Barbara’s original recordings.

As for Amalric, he must have had a hard time making up his mind what was exactly his role, not as the director of the film, but rather as the director in the film. The final result is that he either puts himself too much in evidence with reaction shots admiring Balibar’s showcase performance, or too little, if the main issue was indeed supposed to be the making of a film. Still, when everything is said and done, Barbara fans will love it, even if the rest may well wonder what is it all about.

Production companies:  Waiting for Cinema, Aliceleo

International Sales: Gaumont, alexis.cassanet@gaumont.com

Producer: Patrick Godeau

Screenplay: Mathieu Amalric, Philippe de Folco

Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne

Editor: Francois Gedigier

Production design: Laurent Baude

Cast: Jeanne Balibar, Mathieu Amalric, Aurore Clement, Vincent Peirani, Gregoire Colin, Fanny Imber

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