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Pedro Costa's Post-Documentary

The Portuguese auteur arrives at the Harvard Film Archive this Sunday to screen his latest feature

By Ryan J. Meehan, Crimson Staff Writer

Internationally acclaimed Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa arrives at the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) this Sunday at 7:00 p.m. to present a screening of his sixth feature-length film, “Ne Change Rien” (“Change Nothing”), a documentary on the working life of French cult-chanteuse Jean Balibar. Expanded from a 2007 short of the same name, “Ne Change Rien” is Costa’s latest feature, and the first since the completion of the Fontainhas Trilogy, a cycle of films about the inhabitants of the titular slum-village on the outskirts of Lisbon, with “Juventude em Marcha” (“Colossal Youth”) in 2006. Those films received unanimous praise for their stark, unflinching depiction of a marginalized underclass of service workers, immigrants, and drug addicts, and the considerable formal innovations—a pioneering use of digital video, chief among them—used to capture Fontainhas in its claustrophobia and the chaos of its subsequent real-life demolition.

Subject matter notwithstanding, “Ne Change Rien” hangs together with the films from Fontainhas in its radical formalism; filmed entirely in high-definition digital video (black and white, transferred for screening purposes to 35 millimeter film stock) in a series of hypertrophied static takes, Costa’s documentary is as much a tribute to his friend as it is a singular investigation of spectatorship and the production of art in modernity.

HFA Director Haden R. Guest, who will introduce Costa on Sunday, characterizes the director’s aesthetic as a central blow to the artificial boundary between documentary and fiction filmmaking. “He represents a post-documentary turn in cinema. I don’t think its been as unequivocally stated and as brilliantly stated as in Costa’s work.” The director typically casts amateurs for his fiction features, Guest adds, whose hypnotized performances—the result of a rigorous personal rehearsal strategy—evoke the aestheticized spiritualism of Robert Bresson, in “a marriage of exquisite beauty and stark, poignant, harsh reality.”

In “Ne Change Rien,” rehearsal becomes an end for Costa in and of itself. During the course of the film, we see Balibar rehearsing in the studio with her band and elsewhere, arranging the smoky, eclectic pop songs that would find their way to her 2006 album “Slalom Dame.” These scenes are intercut with footage of Balibar rehearsing for a production of an Offenbach opera, this with a pain taken and a classical precision that bears almost no resemblance to the crooning on Balibar’s albums. In either case, Balibar rarely ‘performs’ throughout Costa’s film. Costa’s primary interest is in the exhaustive and demystifying process behind performance: the singer’s voice falters, tracks from her band fade in and out, and rarely is a song played completely without an interruption or correction, either from her collaborators or herself. The most lasting images of Balibar playing for a proper audience come at the beginning—a long take of the singer’s face, which seems to float amid a gorgeous ocean of changing light—and whose argument constitutes Costa’s principle target, as he undermines the aura of the celebrity with asymmetrical, depersonalized framing more analogous to surveillance video than the gaze of an adoring fan in the film that ensues.

Nevertheless, the object of Costa’s affection is clear: effortlessly, “Ne Change Rien” is as much a deconstruction of performance and artistic perfection—its closest referent being Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 feature “One Plus One,” a quasi-documentary using footage of the Rolling Stones as they recorded “Sympathy for the Devil”—as it is a platonic love letter to Balibar. The songwriter and actress exudes a seductive coolness even at her most bored or absentminded. Balibar’s music becomes a metonym: her pursuit of music is Costa’s pursuit of cinema, the notion of whose conclusion Costa seems to assert is merely a construction. Costa imposes this inability to obtain wholeness as a stricture on the viewer: whether near or far, singing or silent, in the spotlight or invisible, Balibar in her perfection is the one we’re waiting for, and the one we never really meet.

“Ne Change Rien” not only reaffirms Costa’s status as world cinema’s most important working filmmakers, but raises the profile of a burgeoning generation of experimental Portuguese directors for whom Costa is the central figure. Recent series at the HFA featuring the works of Miguel Gomes and João Pedro Rodrigues indicate the movement towards a cinematic vibrancy in Portugal unseen since the most productive days of Manoel de Oliveira and João César Monteiro. “Portugal is a marginal place on the map in world cinema, acting productively as irritants; a burr on the saddle of conventional cinema,” Guest volunteers. “It’s only of late that it’s getting the attention it’s deserved.”

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at

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