While her star continues to shine brightly in France 20 years after her death, the singer Barbara remains a lesser-known artist in other parts of Europe, not to mention on the other side of the pond. Presumably the producers of “Barbara” knew that and won’t be expecting brisk sales even with the opening slot in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. Designed as a sort of meta-film in which Jeanne Balibar (refreshingly unaffected) is an actress playing Barbara in a film made by an obsessed director — Mathieu Amalric doing double duty as actor and director — the movie lightly plumbs that dangerously unsettled space between performing and literally being the protagonist in a biopic. “Barbara” is also a tribute to the singer’s prodigious talent and her undiminished emotional pull, but will struggle to find ticket buyers beyond her francophone fan base.
It’s hard to find a singer outside of France to compare to Barbara: In her heyday, from the 1960s up until her premature death in 1997, she was a performer whose songs uncannily put words to the deeply personal emotional states of her listeners. Her diction was perfect, the clarity of her voice pure, tender, almost fragile, and yet absolutely sure of itself. She would sing of love found or broken, of childhood memories, death, even of brotherhood. It’s claimed her hit “Göttingen” was fundamental in putting to bed post-war French-German tensions. In the 1980s, she boldly worked to counter the stigma of AIDS, and her song “Sid’amour à mort” became a sort of anthem for activists. Her slight frame invariably dressed in black, matching heavily made-up eyes boldly set in her pale, aquiline face, Barbara was adored by her fans and many who worked with her. Just this year Gérard Depardieu, a one-time collaborator who waxes lyrical about their friendship, has been on-stage performing his homage, “Depardieu chante Barbara.”
It’s impossible to say how much of Amalric, if any, is in his character Yves Zand, a director whose obsession with the singer started when he was 16. His star Brigitte (Balibar) has given herself over to Barbara, watching her performances and films, studying her mannerisms, imitating her speech inflections with their bursts of words. Yves wants to recreate every detail exactly as it was, including Barbara’s apartment décor, to make her come alive again, whereas Brigitte’s motivations for transforming herself are unclear and remain so through the end.
The film within the film drops casual hints of the singer’s life, from her childhood hiding from the Nazis, her difficult relationship with her mother (Aurore Clément), fainting when Jacques Brel died, occasional panic before going onstage, etc. Missing in any meaningful way are her relationships, the loves that inspired her to write the words which millions have taken to heart as their own. But this isn’t meant to be a biography, and the target audience is people so familiar with her life and career that they can recognize elements of her life as much as notes in her songs.
More interesting, and far more successful, is 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.
Balibar is perfectly cast and thankfully goes some way toward expelling memories of her Pedro Costa misfire, “Ne change rien,” in which she also sings. She has not only Barbara’s look but also her gestures down pat, and the uncanny way in which the editing conflates actress with subject keeps interest relatively high. While not as splashy as Amalric’s previous “On Tour” (also co-written by Philippe Di Folco and shot by Christophe Beaucarne), the film further demonstrates the actor-helmer’s playfully cerebral fascination with the medium.