Deep Focus: Ne change rien

FILM, Film Festivals

Pedro Costa’s sublime study of an artist at work.

Few in the audience who attended screenings of Ne change rien last week would’ve seen a Pedro Costa film beforehand, such is the obscurity of the Portuguese director’s cinema on this side of the globe (Ne change rien is the first of his features to show in New Zealand). If, like me, they left the movie theatre in raptures, they would do well to seek out more: Costa’s miraculous Fontainhas trilogy (Ossos, 1997; In Vanda’s Room, 2000; Colossal Youth, 2006) was finally released on DVD earlier this year, while The Film Society are rumoured to be inviting a retrospective of the filmmaker’s back catalogue in 2011. Shooting in black and white—the first time since his staggering debut, Blood (O Sangue, 1989)—Costa’s intense, ritualistic examination of the creative rigours undertaken by the French actress and singer Jeanne Balibar was an ideal introduction to his world. The stylistic hallmarks, for one, were plain to see: the dense, low-lit imagery framed stridently and in the traditions of Tourneur, Bresson, and Straub-Huillet (among others); the locked-off camera and surrender to long-takes; the figures emerging from the recesses of shadows; the reverence for faces.

Further echoing Costa’s previous work, Balibar—who, incidentally, voices a character in A Town Called Panic, also scheduled at the New Zealand International Film Festival this winter—possesses the same long, drawn facial features of the director’s ghosts of the past (namely, the unforgettable Vanda Duarte), and at times appears to be another apparition of the Lisbon slums the Fontainhas films were born from. And yet, there is also a lightness, a relief of tension in Ne change rien that emerges through the demands of the creative process—no better evidenced than in the scene where Balibar is coached to breaking point by an unforgiving singing instructor in the performance of an Offenbach opera. Although wallowing in the drowsy melodies of several live numbers delivered by Balibar and her band—heavy-set rock music that seems perfectly matched to Costa’s opaque images—this is far from a concert film, but rather one entranced by the discipline and tedium of an artist at work. Like Frederick Wiseman’s La Danse, Costa’s eye is focused on the painstaking nature of rehearsal—in terms of music documentaries, surely one of the most gorgeous and illuminating ever made—and in reflecting on the artist’s agony for perfection, arrives at ecstasy. Better late than never, here’s hoping Ne change rien isn’t the last Pedro Costa to reach our shores.

Dir. Pedro Costa
Portugal/France, 2009; 99 minutes
In French and English, with English subtitles
Featuring: Jeanne Balibar.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.

Filed under: FILM, Film Festivals

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.