To fans of the mononymous Barbara – the delicate-voiced, emotionally acute French chanteuse adored by everyone from Jacques Brel to François Mitterand – Mathieu Amalric’s mega-meta, dreamily blurred biopic-within-a-film may seem a bemusing tribute to a national icon. To those unfamiliar with the singer and her work – which is to say the vast majority of people outside Francophone territory – this film is likely to be a more perplexing experience still: an elusive ghost of a celebrity portrait, a meditation on likeness and impersonation in which the subject, the actor and the performance become difficult to prise apart on screen.
Once you settle into your bewilderment, however, Barbara an oddly alluring film that does a double backflip on hokey showbiz-bio convention: not an informative introduction to the singer by any means, but a suitably eccentric evocation of her creative essence. For Amalric, the wonderfully rumpled actor turned turned increasingly unpredictable film-maker, this is a partial return to the frisky, freewheeling style of 2010’s delightful burlesque study On Tour. For his leading lady, the lanky, angular Jeanne Balibar, it’s a complicatedly impressive showcase — one that calls on her to play both a version of Barbara and a version of herself. Her elegant, eerie shuffling and melding of identities keeps the film spry even as its tricksiness wears thin.
Balibar plays movie star Brigitte, who in turn is playing Barbara with obsessive method detail in a film directed by devoted fan Yves Zand – played, of course, by Amalric, for maximum self-reflexive mirroring. We’re made privy to Brigitte’s rigorous research and rehearsal process, as she studies and mimics the singer’s vocal textures and body language with slavish precision. Amalric alternates these with glimpses of the finished imaginary film, seemingly one of those more conventional Wikipedia-style biopics – selectively touching on stray plot points from Barbara’s life in random order. No clear narrative through-line emerges, though it becomes increasingly difficult to keep Balibar’s performance, and her performance of a performance, separate: both appear haunted by Barbara, herself melancholically present in occasional archive footage that ultimately blend into the tapestry alongside her screen facsimiles.
Is Amalric offering a critique of the biographical format, pointing out the impossibilities of presenting true life on camera? Or is Barbara less a valentine to its eponymous star than a celebration of actorly craft itself? The exact point of this shimmering film is as hard to pin down as its subject. Perhaps Amalric could have taken a cue from Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, channelling Barbara into a splintered thespian ensemble of different personae — if only to give Gerard Depardieu, another Barbara superfan, a big-screen outlet for his recent series of (yes, really) “Depardieu Chante Barbara” concerts. With that in mind, Amalric and Balibar’s playful homage begins to look a lot less disorienting.