By Daniel Kasman
First, Ne change rien turns up the idea that most of Pedro Costa’s recent films are dress rehearsals. Where his major mentors, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, also film bodies possessed, there delivering fluent incantations of old times lost through stone-still poses, Costa’s characters, like Jacques Rivette’s, always seem to be looking for the incantation—the spell—the fix—to summon any sense of feeling, or inspiration in a deadened world (inspire, originally, meant to breathe). The difference between Costa and Rivette, then, would be that Rivette’s characters find it—a magic talisman usually, maybe a romance, a moment of creation or destruction—while Costa’s exiles fumble around with syringes, get up, and fall asleep (Ventura recollects and recites his past, but seems unable to even be moved by it himself). Even Costa’s documentary on Straub plays as dress rehearsal for moments of great artistic genius that only come through a lot of huffing, pacing, and muttered swearing, all on the part of Straub as the anti-Straubian hero. Straub-Huillet’s musical, Cronik Der Anna Magdalena Bach, shows Bach’s polished performances. Costa’s, Ne change rien, shows Jeanne Balibar trying bars and melodies and entire songs over and over, repeating phrases, getting cut-off by an off-screen instructor, trying to build energy and rhythm with the background music into one, united song. The whole thing’s a jam session.
It also turns out Costa’s been making something like concert films for years—Costa, similar to Straub, displacing the emotions of his statue-characters to the soundtrack, usually diffused bird songs and children’s yelps. Balibar’s ongoing concert’s not any different: a woman in a closed room, standing at a mike, looking as straight and still as Costa’s camera (as usual, left in place for minutes), while her voice and the music, piped in and out around her, do the emoting for her while she’s just hanging out and trying to find the beat. Still lives with music, almost.
But what’s different in Ne change rien, probably because it’s a documentary (though about as much a doc as Costa’s other recent films, which also show everyday life as staged by the people who live it), is the expressiveness of the actors, grinning when they find the mainline, hands flicking up and down on their knees. Costa lights bodies like solar flare lines and faces like half-moons, slight whites against pitch black backgrounds, so that a slight turn of the neck can reconfigure a face’s composition, bring new parts out from shadow; the look is almost charcoal.
The result’s that players are only seen minimally—in silhouette with a hand waving back and forth, or just an eye and right curl of the mouth—so that the smallest gestures express maximally. The opening shot, the simplest shot from a stage right wing as the musicians come out and start, makes stage lights look like stars, the act a constellation. The movie’s just people jamming, superficially his Poor Little Rich Girl, but Costa, as usual, gives the most banal acts metaphysical weight: as in a dream—my dreams, anyway, half-awake—starting with a half-formed image and a montage of sounds and voices, building, that gradually find their bodies (and what's maybe most dream-like is the tangential realism: an off-screen voice correcting Balibar's "v"s and saying "I like consonants too").
Costa, of course, would say otherwise, that his job is just to be in service of his performers and let them express themselves totally. And Balibar, with her low, breathy wail she fades in and out like an organ, and lifts girlishly till it sounds like it’ll break—not a great singing voice, but a great voice—is the central mystery. Costa just accentuates it, through the light, through the editing, which seems arbitrary at first, but turns out to be cycling through the same scenes in new takes or further developments; as in his last few films, each scene is a permutation off the other, as Costa tapes Balibar singing all types of songs, to see how her voice shapes them all the same (as Hollywood directors used to dress Jennifer Jones up in all classes of dresses to try to find the same, central personality all of them fit equally well). Like almost all of Costa’s films, Ne change rien is about an exile’s search for self-expression.
All this posed hypothetically, as usual, a couple hours later.