Close-Up on Mathieu Amalric's "Barbara"

Mathieu Amalric and Jeanne Balibar's unconventional biopic makes the singer into a figurehead for a certain French identity and French art.
Caspar Salmon
Mathieu Amalric's Barbara is showing exclusively from February 24 – March 25, 2019 on MUBI in the United States. 
There’s a tricky subtitling dilemma about an hour into Mathieu Amalric’s splendidly loopy and abstract film about the French singer Barbara that tells you a lot about his project. For context, you need to know that the film isn’t a straight-up biopic, focusing as it does on an actor, Brigitte (played by Jeanne Balibar) preparing to play Barbara in a film directed by Yves Zand, played by Amalric himself. The movie alternates scenes from Barbara’s life with rehearsal scenes for the film and archival footage of the real Barbara, becoming in the process an almost dizzying whirl of true or false, legend and rumor, homage and performance. At this stage of the film, then, just after a scene taken from the film within the film, where Barbara has learnt of the death of Jacques Brel, the movie director visits Brigitte at her house to talk over a new page of script he has written about Brel. When Brigitte opens the door to him, the camera offers a close-up on his hand presenting her a gift, as he says: “Je vous ai apporté des bonbons.”
The person in charge of British subtitles has, rather unfortunately, translated this literally as “I brought you candy”—which is fine for a literal translation, but doesn’t capture the fact that this line is an in-joke, a reference between the director and his star, who signals with a “hmmph” that she has got it, to Jacques Brel’s famous song, “Les Bonbons.” The song is a weird and funny one, sung by Brel in character as a smarmy creep trying to impress a woman who clearly isn’t into him, by giving her sweets instead of flowers, “because flowers are perishable.” The line would be immediately recognizable to a certain French audience, in the same way that, for instance, “uptight, everything is alright” might be to an English-speaking one.
This problem—which essentially boils down to how one gets across the Frenchness of this project—shows how the film trades in references and allusions; in games and halls of mirrors. In doing so, it makes Barbara, the singer, a sort of figurehead for a particular French identity, for French art. Her lyrics are woven into the very fabric of the film, often quoted straight-up from her songs in dialogue: this functions in three ways. First, it works as a kind of metatextual thread in a film that is intent on playing around; second, it makes an argument for Barbara and her songs as vectors of a common French culture; third, it establishes her music as key to her very personhood, and the best way to understand the person, rather than by ferreting around in her psychology. In fact, by distancing us from Barbara by the remove of having an actor clearly playing her, the film shows its lack of interest in a literal enquiry into her, or an attempt to embody her fully. Jeanne Balibar, in a wonderful performance, does something much more like suggesting her, or offering declensions of her.
At this point, viewers should be reminded that Balibar used to Amalric’s wife—it’s key to the film in several ways, not least the intimacy in Amalric’s shooting, culminating in a scene of quite wonderful tenderness which depicts Balibar as Brigitte as Barbara singing at her piano in a long and circuitous shot, towards the end of the film. The relationship is also visible in a shared understanding that the two of them have of the character of Barbara, and how best to hint at her: they ramp up her playfulness and artifice, for instance in scenes of her improvising on the theme of L’avventura, or by emphasizing the mask and make-up that went into creating her persona. Finally, they riff on their relationship in the film’s rather knotty and ambiguous take on love and sexuality: the director that Amalric plays is clearly obsessed with Barbara the figure and interested in Brigitte in some way; add to this the film’s discourse on love and incest and you’re left with something quite surprising. At one stage, Amalric stages a long performance of Barbara’s “Amours Incestueuses”; at another he caps off a lovely setting of her melancholy “Nantes,” which deals with the death of her father, with a scene of her picking up a young man for a one night stand. This is audacious, because—I think—it is a sidelong way of addressing Barbara’s troubled relationship with her sexually ambiguous father, taking a cue from her own lyrics. In essence, the film enacts a dizzying whorl of relationships—imagined, real and metatextual—that give a sense of Barbara’s own intense ties to lovers and family. If you listen to “Rémusat” you hear her address her departed mother in a way that you would ordinarily expect from a lover; full of baleful “since you left me”s and “now that you’re gone”s, it gives a measure of Barbara’s heavily charged relationships.
If the film can be so on the nose about this, it’s because it pays due lip service to Barbara’s lyrics, enmeshing them through the story and dialogue. Amalric clearly decides that the art is key to the person, and he shows that, while Barbara clearly plays with her persona, her use of language in her songs is sincere and straight-up. To this end, even songs that don’t get a play in the film get quoted in the movie, forming its backbone. And Amalric captures something of Barbara’s rather strange, funny, surprising and sometimes prim language in invented scenes, such as the hilarious scene when she lambasts her long-suffering assistant during a drug low: “Look at your get-up! What’s this nun’s habit you’re wearing? The only nun around here is me! What have you done with the apple-green clothes you usually put on to make people notice you?” Hearing an actor of Jeanne Balibar’s caliber sound out the words “vert pomme” is a great pleasure, of course, but this scene shows that the film seizes very well Barbara’s odd relationship to language. This, after all, is the  woman who tells a lover he’s “the Robinson Crusoe to my desert island”; or who turns Solitude into a stalker in her song of the same name, only to tell her she’s ugly and should piss off; or who warns a lover that if he leaves her she’ll go off with someone else, as “I don’t have the virtue of sailors’ wives”; or who wrote a love song called “Fax Me.”
In a sense, the light folly in Barbara’s idiom can be said to be a precursor for Amalric’s artistry, for the flights of language we’ve seen him assay in films by Arnaud Desplechin. The film hints at this in several scenes, such as one where the film director finds himself in a cafe when Barbara’s late ballad “L’aigle noir” comes on the television. Amalric ties Barbara in to a certain notion of shared French identity: if he has an actor playing, and becoming, Barbara, it’s because the singer is herself a part of French people. At one point, Brigitte asks the film director if he’s making a film about himself or about Barbara: this is knowing, from Amalric, for whom this is clearly a passion project. When he gives the film director a scene in which he talks about seeing Barbara on stage as a young man, in the 90s, this is evidently something drawn from his own life. And, finally, Amalric demonstrates beautifully how Barbara is tied into the history of the country, the geography of it, by her songs that consistently reflect on place and time. “Nantes,” “Rémusat” and “Precy Jardin” all tie in locations to the personal, while “Gottingen,” which she also sang in German, gives a sense of a Franco-German rapprochement. This is one of Barbara’s lightly political statements, along with her involvement with ACT UP, which is also subtly alluded to in the film.
For this intricate web of connections, Barbara probably stands as one of the most French films ever made, one which may struggle to make itself felt or understood by people not steeped in a certain culture. In the same way that someone like Alan Bennett for Britain, or, say, Mr. Rogers for the USA, might be said to be culturally specific figures with a very particular set of meanings and associations for a certain demographic, so Barbara reflects back at the audience a certain type of France. An interesting scene in the film alludes to Serge Gainsbourg, who started out in the same vein as Barbara as a young singer-songwriter brought up on Prévert—but Gainsbourg crossed over in some ways to English-speaking culture, developing a fascination with Anglo-American culture (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Harley Davidson”) as he grew older. Barbara, in the film, recognizes Gainsbourg’s talent, saying she cannot do what he does; this is true, but we also see in the film that Barbara’s very specificity is what makes her fascinating to an artist like Amalric.
In a sense, Gainsbourg’s songs are self-explanatory: his puns, allusions and provocations are evident, and don’t tell us very much about him. In Barbara’s work, metaphors don’t really help explain things, but take us a little further away from meaning. Compare a song like Gainsbourg’s “La noyée” to Barbara’s “L’aigle noir” and you hear a clear meaning in his piece, as opposed to something bold and terrifying in Barbara’s song, which revels in the power of its own imagery. Gainsbourg imagines a lover drifting away, down a river, always out of reach; Barbara imagines an enormous black eagle surging out of nowhere, “seeming to burst the sky.” She is vague on details—the story begins with “one fine day— or was it night?”—which makes the song more odd and dreamlike. The black eagle could stand for depression, or death, or for the abuse she suffered as a child, or it might even be an allusion to the Third Reich: Barbara fled Vichy with her family as a child, during the last two years of the Second World War. The singer always seems to be running away from us, giving us glimpses of herself that fire up the imagination, then vanishing. Amalric doesn’t try to pin her down, but instead conjures up a hall of mirrors in which she disappears, is seen, is made small and big, is comical or voluptuous, is many people all at once, is accompanied by you or far, far away.


Mathieu AmalricBarbara
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