Jeanne’s love affair with Barbara

César best actress Balibar on becoming a musical legend in Barbara

by Richard Mowe

Jeanne Balibar at the Cannes Film Festival last year: 'I wanted to experience what it was like to play those chords and to understand why they are there...'
Jeanne Balibar at the Cannes Film Festival last year: 'I wanted to experience what it was like to play those chords and to understand why they are there...' Photo: Richard Mowe
With her strong physical resemblance to the legendary French chanteuse Barbara, Jeanne Balibar must have seemed an obvious candidate to take the role in any project evoking the singer’s extraordinary career which began in the 1950s with songs by Brel and Brassens before making her name with her own music such as L’aigle Noir (Black Eagle) and Ma Plus Belle Histoire d’Amour, C’est Nous (You Are My Most Beautiful Love Story).

Barbara (real name Monique Serf) was born on June 9, 1930, in Paris. She studied the piano and voice as a teenager, but dropped out of the Paris Music Conservatory to make her own way as a singer at the age of 19.

Balibar 49, a child of the Sixties and daughter of physicist Françoise Balibar and philosopher Étienne, began her acting career in Don Juan at the Avignon Festival before joining the Comedie-Française, where she remained until 1997. She made her screen breakthrough in Arnaud Desplechin’s The Sentinel in 1992 opposite her long-time ex-partner Mathieu Amalric.

Talking last year at the Cannes Film Festival, where Amalric’s film Barbara opened the Un Certain Regard section, Balibar - who was named best actress for her performance in the Césars - explained that she had been often wooed by propositions to play the singer in both theatre and cinema productions.

“I always refused,” she said, languishing under a shaded canopy. “All the projects that came my way did not do justice to the affection and love with which I regarded her. Pierre Léon, with whom I had worked, talked to me about his script and vision and playing Barbara in his conception suddenly seemed possible. The producer Patrick Godeau seemed interested and sought out the finance - and then we had to look for a director to give it shape. Mathieu was the obvious choice.”

Director and actor Mathieu Amalric with César-winning best actress Jeanne Balibar for Barbara
Director and actor Mathieu Amalric with César-winning best actress Jeanne Balibar for Barbara Photo: Richard Mowe
Balibar had never seen the singer perform but as a young girl she listened a lot to her records. At the age of eight she was given a 45rpm record with three of her songs Dis, Quand Reviendras-tu?, Le Temps Des Lilas, and Nantes. She recalled: “During my adolescence, she was important, but not hysterically so. I had a group of girl friends and we used to listen to her songs. She represented girls’ music in a way, while The Beatles, the Stones and Iggy Pop were considered boys’ music.”

She considered it essential that she learned to play the piano - and started with a teacher from scratch. “I wanted to experience what it was like to play those chords and to understand why they are there, and why she makes a particular movement or sound at a certain moment. I guess it was also rather selfish, because the production budget helped to pay for my piano lessons!” she said.

Balibar prefers to allow her incarnation to inhabit her rather than having to form an idea about who she was. She added: “I did not think that would be interesting for me as an actor. That is the director’s job - in the directing and the editing. My role is just to be myself and be as much alive as I can be. She was very much alive as a person. She had this enormous life energy and I had to make sure that I was as alive as her. Apart from that we have nothing in common - and I never tried to find anything in common.” Her motive was to dissolve the borders between the real Barbara and her own interpretation.

Amalric, who has worked with her on nine occasions, decided to eschew a traditional biopic format, instead constructing a film within a film, allowing a mirror to be held up to the singer. Balibar watches Barbara’s performances on black-and-white film and imitates her inflections and mannerisms, while humming the same melodies.

Jeanne Balibar: 'I knew all her texts by heart but acting is like letting go of little balloons that fly in the air'
Jeanne Balibar: 'I knew all her texts by heart but acting is like letting go of little balloons that fly in the air' Photo: Unifrance
As in Amalric’s 2010 feature On Tour, in which he co-starred as the producer of the burlesque troupe, he plays the role of an obsessive director, conducting interviews with the singer’s friends and listening to recordings.

Working again with the mother of his two sons proved energising. He suggests that Balibar is the kind of actress who is so free that she prefers not to know what’s going to happen. “That’s why she likes to work with me. It was like free jazz,” he said.

Balibar worked on the music for two years and researched the singer intensively. “I knew all her texts by heart but acting is like letting go of little balloons that fly in the air. You need to have a collection of them to work with,” she added.

She divides her time between Paris and Berlin, where she lives with theatre director Frank Castorf, 66, who until last year ran the Volksbühne (People’s Theatre) and had acquired a reputation as the enfant terrible of German theatre due to his radical reworking of classical texts. Balibar appeared in many of his productions, acting in German if the occasion demanded.

She will be back at the Avignon Festival this summer but remains discreetly tight-lipped about an “an extraordinary cinema project” in the offing. She describes all good films as “an act of love” but declines to reveal who will be romancing her the next time around.

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