Filming sensations

Mathieu Amalric on Pierre Léon, Jeanne Balibar and the sounds and colours of Barbara

by Anne-Katrin Titze

‪Mathieu Amalric‬ on directing Barbara: "There would be immediately a presence. It was the spirit we were waiting for."
‪Mathieu Amalric‬ on directing Barbara: "There would be immediately a presence. It was the spirit we were waiting for." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue over breakfast, Mathieu Amalric discussed with me Pierre Léon's initial involvement with Barbara, Jeanne Balibar's performance, a clip from Jacques Brel's film Franz, an Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai moment, and filming sensations.

Mathieu Amalric will soon be seen as Dr. Paul Gachet in Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate (Closing Night film of the 56th New York Film Festival), co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière and Louise Kugelberg, shot by Benoît Delhomme, and starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, with Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin, Rupert Friend as Theo, Emmanuelle Seigner, Mads Mikkelsen, and Niels Arestrup.

Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) with Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) in Arnaud Desplechin's Ismael's Ghosts (Les Fantômes D'Ismaël)
Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) with Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) in Arnaud Desplechin's Ismael's Ghosts (Les Fantômes D'Ismaël)

Mathieu is also the narrator for Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In The Realm Of Perfection and had his films on John Zorn and Barbara Hannigan shown in the Spotlight on Documentary program of the 55th New York Film Festival.

Sheets of reality and calendar years merge into a forceful Once Upon a Time that unites the enchanted, be it in Paris or New York or Göttingen, in Mathieu Amalric's ravishing Barbara. Already the opening credits lead us into its dream logic of substitutions and doublings. The Bs and As meld in the names Barbara and Balibar, as in Jeanne Balibar, who stars as Brigitte who plays real-life singer Barbara in the film within the film.

The director teamed up once again with cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne and editor François Gédigier, both of whom he worked with on The Blue Room (La Chambre Bleue), to enter the nebulous terrain of an audio-visual memoir that blurs the record to reveal the truth.

Anne-Katrin Titze: What I like so much about your film is that whereas so many movies try to solve the mystery, unravel the mystery, you are doing the opposite. Barbara is even more mysterious to me now after seeing your film. Did you set out to do that? You wanted more mystery?

‪Mathieu Amalric‬ on Jeanne Balibar as Brigitte in Barbara: "The whole work in fact really was to be able just to be in sensations."
‪Mathieu Amalric‬ on Jeanne Balibar as Brigitte in Barbara: "The whole work in fact really was to be able just to be in sensations."

Mathieu Amalric: Yes, maybe I wasn't thinking about more mystery. You know, it's Pierre Léon that was supposed to do this film. He tried to do this film over eight years and he didn't manage. It was with Jeanne already. And he asked me because they were tired and wouldn't believe in it anymore.

And he said "Why don't you try?" So really it was just "Oh god, a biopic? On Barbara, this French legend? How do you do that?" It was more a reaction as a spectator, in fact. It became listening to her music and filming Jeanne and her work with the piano.

AKT: And the intermediary character of Brigitte arrived late in the process?

MA: Very late. [We have coffee and Mathieu orders a blueberry muffin]. So there was Jeanne, there was the music, and yes, mystery. It was more like spiritism. Something like that.

AKT: That makes sense, strangely enough. The opening credits are already setting the tone in Barbara. The Bs and As in the names Balibar and Barbara. And then your name, Mathieu, with a big A, comes up and it's funny because it's a bit of Look at me!, like the character you play in the film. Now me! In a very charming way. How did that opening sequence come about?

Mathieu Amalric starred in and directed The Blue Room (La Chambre Bleue)
Mathieu Amalric starred in and directed The Blue Room (La Chambre Bleue)

MA: It was the sound. The seed was always the sound that comes from a song by Barbara, that is Chanson Pour Une Absente. It's from an album where she explains to an arranger what colour she is searching for. Each time there would be a note on the piano, there would be another letter. That's how we started. It was this game on notes and letters.

AKT: I have synesthesia and my alphabet has colours. Nabokov describes this in Speak, Memory. What you did with the letters and colours and sounds made it impossible for me to read the end credits - which was amazing in itself as an experience.

Your last film's title was The Blue Room, you just had a blueberry muffin [blueberries feature prominently in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. Mathieu is the French voice for Mr Fox], Barbara has midnight blue walls and there is a controversy about her Mercedes being blue. Which brings us to the question of accuracy.

MA: She had blue in her room. I couldn't film in her bedroom. That's why it's always through doors that you see this blue. It was her own space.

AKT: Out of respect?

Mathieu Amalric on Jeanne Balibar in Barbara: "It was more a reaction as a spectator, in fact. It became listening to her music and filming Jeanne and her work with the piano."
Mathieu Amalric on Jeanne Balibar in Barbara: "It was more a reaction as a spectator, in fact. It became listening to her music and filming Jeanne and her work with the piano."

MA: Yes, I couldn't imagine. It wasn't In Bed With Barbara.

AKT: No, it's: At Work With Barbara.

MA: Yes, and maybe going through Brigitte it was possible and then the room is red and she is in bed with a man. There's no meaning for the blue Mercedes. You know why? Because I was angry against an assistant because everybody knew we were looking for a grey Mercedes or a brown Mercedes that she had. And they only found a blue Mercedes. That was for me impossible for the lovers of Barbara: Make note, I'm sorry I'm showing you a blue but I know it wasn't blue.

AKT: That little Orson Welles moment you have - The Lady From Shanghai?

MA: Absolutely. I didn't just want Brigitte watching - they should be mixed in the same space.

AKT: The footage included, for example from the Jacques Brel film Franz, what it does, is it makes you want to see more. You always leave at the right time. I wanted to hear more of the songs, too. So it's edited in the right place.

MA: It's visions. You wake up and it's gone but it's there. The whole work in fact really was to be able just to be in sensations. As close to the songs, as her music goes directly to a vibration, an intimate vibration. When we were shooting something, we would be only filming sensation so to hide always the dispositive. I was very very very afraid each time of the film in the film dispositive. I could go with a shot of 25 minutes. I would breathe. It was this duration.

Barbara poster
Barbara poster

There would be immediately a presence. It was the spirit we were waiting for. Ah, yes, cinema is arriving. Spirit is arriving. It was creating a dispositive that would not be a prison for her because that's the problem of biopics. That she wouldn't be in a performance but in something bigger than that, more wild than that. That she had the space for that. That's all; that was my job. Just to be an historian before and then leave it. It's important to leave it.

Barbara had its world premiere at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Un Certain Regard Poetry of Cinema Award. This year the film won five César Awards: Best Actress for Jeanne Balibar, Best Original Screenplay Mathieu Amalric and Philippe Di Folco, Best Cinematography Christophe Beaucarne, Best Editing François Gédigier, and Best Sound Olivier Mauvezin, Nicolas Moreau and Stéphane Thiébaut.

At Eternity’s Gate will screen at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall on Friday, October 12.

CBS Films will release At Eternity’s Gate in November 2018.

The 2018 New York Film Festival runs from September 28 through October 14.

John McEnroe: In the Realm Of Perfection opens at Film Forum in New York on August 23.

  • Read our interview with Jeanne Balibar on her love affair with Barbara.

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