No sort of motion picture is more stylized, utopian, or fun to theorize than the musical. As an exercise in orchestrated time, each and every movie aspires to the state of music; those actually set to music are closest to their medium’s essence. At least I think that’s what Jean-Luc Godard meant when, pondering The Pajama Game, he called musicals “the idealization of cinema,” or why Andrew Sarris so confidently opined that a musical was something “every aesthete in New York, London, and Paris wants to make.”
However different they may be in approach, Damien Chazelle (Boston) and Pedro Costa (Lisbon) are two such aesthetes, each with a song in his heart. Both of these filmmakers’ cannily frugal avant-musicals—Chazelle’s giddy Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench and Costa’s solemn Ne change rien—could be described as idealized cinema: each a beautifully shot, rhythmically complex, wildly artistic, willfully eccentric quest for authenticity. In these two studied yet spontaneous films, the focus is on process: Making music is synonymous with making the movie.
A quasi-documentary portrait of young non-actors striking poses, walking around Boston, hanging out, and playing or listening to music, Guy and Madeline—shown here at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival—began when Chazelle, now 25, was an undergraduate at Harvard, and evolved over a period of years. The movie is at once fresh and retro, a casual three-mumblechord affair glamorized by its exuberant nostalgia for pop bop of the late ’50s and the then-new wave excitement of Shadows and Breathless. Narrative barely exists, except as musical-comedy trope: A self-absorbed young trumpeter, Guy (jazz musician Jason Palmer), a wiry cat with an angelic face, and the beatific, somewhat bewildered Boston student Madeline (Desiree Garcia, writing a dissertation on Hollywood musicals while filming) fall in love, break up, become involved with other people, and reconnect . . . maybe.
The movie was shot old-style in black-and-white 16mm, nervously handheld and mainly in tight close-up. (When Guy showers with his new girlfriend, the camera seemingly crowds against them in the stall.) Establishing shots and transitions are few, pulverized vignettes and conversational shards plentiful. Not just Justin Hurwitz’s big band score (recorded by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra), but the entire movie, half filmed on the street or in the Boston transit system, jumps. Nothing is ever still; everything feels off the cuff. (When Guy’s family comes up from North Carolina, they’re played by the actor’s actual relations.) Even better, anything can cue a song.
Some of the numbers, lyrics by Chazelle, are shown in performance—Guy’s trumpet burbling in the background as a pal warbles “I Lost My Heart in Cincinnati.” Others are presented as spontaneous jam sessions. (In one, a hipster Fred Astaire sings, “Love in the Fall,” tap dancing around a recording studio while keeping time with a pair of drumsticks.) Music and dance are all the more crucial in that the characters are otherwise notably non-communicative. Charmingly imperfect, Madeline several times breaks into song on the street or in the midst of life—not unlike Anna Karina in Godard’s Pierrot le fou—to reveal her feelings. Even more Godardian is the big production number, staged at the Summer Shack where Madeline works as a waitress. Fellow employees join together to clean the joint and tap on the tables as she recaps her story: “I kissed a boy in the park! . . . I like New York in the fall!”
The enthusiasm with which Chazelle and company put on this show is anything but innocent, but it is infectious. Guy and Madeline is at once self-conscious and breezy, clumsy and deft, diffident and sweet, annoying and ecstatic. It’s amateurish in the best sense, and it radiates cinephilia. No movie I’ve seen this year has given me more joy.
Ne change rien, shown here as part of the 2009 New York Film Festival, is an altogether more ascetic sort of new wave musical—its Godardian model is the open-ended, counterculture-confounding 1968 Rolling Stones rehearsal doc Sympathy for the Devil. Pedro Costa, legendary for his intimate, epic, underlit and often inaudible portraits of Lisbon slum-dwellers, here ponders the mystery of the contemporary French actress-turned-(or-perhaps-playing)-chanteuse, Jeanne Balibar (a favorite of Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin).
Call it the Passion of Jeanne: Accompanied for much of the movie by a single reverb-heavy guitar and a snare drum, Balibar demonstrates a carefully calibrated lack of affect and a voice as smoky as a carton of Gitanes. She favors the sort of Euro angst ballads that might have appealed to Nico or Nick Cave, mainly written by the singer herself with guitarist Rudolphe Burger. Less expectedly, Balibar can shift gears to trill Offenbach, performing the role of the street-singer in a no-frills production of La perichole.
The movie opens with Balibar’s fabulously deadpan cover of Kris Jensen’s “Torture,” the pop rockabilly lament best known to cineastes for its inclusion in Scorpio Rising, but, not a filmmaker to follow up one crowd-pleaser with another, Costa immediately risks losing the audience with half an hour of Balibar’s relentless drone scatting a single verse. (Balibar may be the daughter of a celebrated Marxist philosopher, but her process seems more Heideggerian, with songs as a sort of thought-work, broken down into repetitive chunks of sound.) Typically, one-fifth of the screen is illuminated, the extreme chiaroscuro lighting rendering the singer’s harlequin-featured face as a crescent moon in the inky void.
Something between a portrait and a performance doc, Ne change rien is entrancing—literally. I saw it at a 10 a.m. screening in Cannes and stumbled out as if from an after-hours bar. On one hand, the movie is powerfully soporific; on the other, it has a controlled, hypnotic, Sufi energy. The cinematography is stunning and beyond atmospheric. The music is highly intelligent and the structure is totally musical. Balibar as Balibar is undeniably charismatic. When, toward the end, she appears on a Tokyo stage with a band, discreetly gyrating in tight jeans and an off-the-shoulder sweater, to fervently intone the theme from Johnny Guitar, she’s nothing less than the muse of cinema.