The ever prolific Mathieu Amalric, with his bulbous eyes that tempt to twitch at any given second, and frazzled, half-cracked smiles, is a brilliantly neurotic actor. It’s what makes watching him on screen so utterly compelling. But those qualities don’t always translate when they’re brought behind the camera as well. Case in point: “Barbara.” Stretching out the film-within-a-film trope to its outer limits, “Barbara” is Amalric’s ambitious attempt at detailing the creative process through the life of popular 1960s French singer Barbara. This process is captured through a three-fold prism: Jeanne Balibar’s Brigitte as she digs deeper and deeper into her Barbara character; the obsessed director Yves Zand (Amalric, naturally), whose life changed when he met the singer at the age of 16, and is making a film about her; and the legendary chanteuse herself — as both Brigitte and Yves sift through archival footage and talk with people who’ve known Barbara to get everything about her eccentric way of life just right.
Over the attractive and minimal neon opening credits, we are hurled into this film with zero exposition. It’s a dirty word in film, exposition; too much of it is never a good thing, but none of it can be just as bad. Those not familiar with her (and Barbara’s popularity beyond her native France, especially for those who haven’t lived during her heyday, is nearly non-existent) are left scrambling from the word go, following breadcrumbs to try and understand her importance, all while trying to follow Amalric’s haphazard storytelling and marveling at Christophe Beaucarne’s gorgeous photography. We are pulled in and out of the film and the film within, never really sure (whenever Balibar is on screen, at least) if we’re watching Brigitte or Barbara. Zand’s intermittent appearances and moments of inspiration serve to confuse more than add levity, and not even Amalric’s natural acting abilities have enough grit to scrub off the muddled experience of watching the plot unfold. There’s a big word for this film; plot. The entirety of “Barbara” feels like it was improvised with scribbles on napkins, in between whiskey-drenched monologues about the meaning of art and life, to a barman who just wants to close up shop and go home.
“Barbara” curdles toward its end as we watch Brigitte get more and more methodical with her role, trying to replicate her subject’s every move and gesticulation. Zand discusses Barbara with Jacques Tournier, the French author who spent a lot of time with her, to get more insight, and comments on more than one occasion on the height of the accordion player who may or may not be sleeping with Brigitte. The script keeps getting re-written, sometimes by Zand and sometimes by Brigitte, and we catch glimpses of fragmented scenes that tease further insights into Barbara’s life; her relationship with a gambling-addicted mother, her post-WWII experiences as a child, and her capricious feelings about the importance of singing. So, who is Barbara? You won’t really find the answer here, only traces of a vague picture of a woman who had a fantastic voice, a rocky childhood and the kind of charisma that froze an entire room.
These fragments of the real Barbara’s life are a few of a small handful of graces that save Amalric’s film from totally drowning in its own indulgence. She was clearly an exceptionally interesting artist, and it’s no wonder that her songs, dripping with poetic melancholia about lost loves and taboo sorrows, touched something very deep and meaningful in people that made her so beloved. One of the film’s few highlights is “Incestuous Love” — a completely eerie, yet beautiful, song that hides a world of pain beneath its uncomfortable lyrics. Which brings us to the main saving grace: Jeanne Balibar’s magnificently unhinged dual performance as Brigitte and Barbara. She is the film’s compelling epicenter; both physically (she has a supernatural resemblance to Barbara) and emotionally, as the only thing that remains genuine here is Brigitte’s own devotion to getting inside her character. She sprints through an entire range of expressive states like an Olympic athlete; at times listless when getting direction from Zand, at others completely volatile as she screams at her assistant for medication.
A fantastic performance, though, needs the support of the story its in to truly blossom beyond the running time. Balibar’s glorious efforts are, unfortunately, wasted here. One member of Zand’s film crew almost steals the entire show with his half-bored expressions and nonplussed reactions. His one defining feature is an unlit cigarette that hangs, nonchalantly and constantly, in his mouth. This is really the perfect metaphor for the film. Amalric puts all of the esoteric artistic tendencies that are part and parcel of the creative process into “Barbara” and comes up with an incoherent mess of a docu-drama. The entire film feels like a playful experiment that never evolves beyond a concept, like an unlit cigarette, never getting the spark it needs to fulfill its purpose. [C]