Mathieu Amalric’s Barbara is less a biopic than an essay on the lure of making art, as the actor and filmmaker plays a director, Yves Zand, who’s collaborating with an actress, Brigitte (Jeanne Balibar), on a film about the titular French singer—a narrative which merges with the film they’re making. The conceit is intentionally confusing, as one initially assumes that Amalric and Balibar are playing themselves, which is what they’re ultimately doing anyway. “Zand” and “Brigitte” are extra variables, then, thrown into the film for playful obfuscation. Amalric delights in blurring the lines between Balibar, Barbara, and Brigitte, as well as between Zand and one of Barbara’s collaborators, Jacques Brel. Blending these strands of fact and fictional projection together, Amalric fashions a spellbinding slipstream.
Amalric rhymes the making of a film about Barbara with the singer’s touring throughout France in the 1970s and ‘80s, as both pursuits are shown in Barbara to be ecosystems that are driven simultaneously by community and ego. When Barbara argues with her mother, Esther (Aurore Clément), about her traveling, as well as the latter’s gambling habits, Amalric allows the scene to gain melodramatic velocity only to dash it with the appearance of a film crew that yells cut, shuffling back and forth to rearrange things for another scene.
Barbara becomes Brigitte (or Balibar), who wonders if Yves (or Amalric) is happy with the take. Moments later, Yves is seen weeping, watching a monitor in another room. Barbara means something mysteriously monumental to him, and Brigitte at one point asks if Yves is making a film about the icon or himself. Tellingly, he replies that there’s no difference. In a matter of moments, Barbara’s power over her mother merges with Zand’s power over Brigitte, paralleling other respective modes of authority: that which producers exert over Barbara and that which Barbara wields over her subordinates.
Many scenes in Barbara pivot on such a splintering of perception and will, yielding a fusion of multiple existences rooted in various forms of subservience, even if only to one’s private whims and demons. Amalric persuasively suggests that performance is reality, that simulation of an action is another form of action. Though Balibar is pretending to be Brigitte and Barbara, she’s putting herself through a spectrum of emotions, living through them, even if in contained bursts. And Amalric understands these emotions to be essentially autobiographical, rather than biographical, as one’s imagining of another’s emotions is based inescapably on personal experience. Similarly, Amalric, via Zand, is playing his struggle to make a biopic that doesn’t rely on the usual narrative arcs, particularly the rise and fall of a turbulent talent.
The filmmaker also understands his self-consciousness to be a self-absorption that distances him from the real Barbara, who haunts the film as a specter. In an amazing composition, footage of the real Barbara is filtered through multiple planes of glass—sets within sets as well as realities within realities—as Balibar plays Brigitte playing Barbara rehearsing a song while in the throes of loneliness in her apartment. This space is lit with the same filters used for Barbara’s concerts, further blurring the film’s sense of objective orientation, fostering an intense yet self-critical pathos. Amalric captures Balibar’s pained efforts to conjure the essence of a woman who’s all around her, and so we’re keyed into the preciousness and fragility of art-making, which mirrors the on-screen Barbara’s vulnerability, ironically intensifying the melodrama via deconstruction. And this artificialness is foreshadowed by a scene early in Barbara, where Zand (or Amalric) plans the various shots and symbols that will define the film we’re presently seeing.
These postmodern head games allow Amalric to shatter narrative and seemingly live in the moment, and Barbara has a wandering, sketchbook-like quality that’s truer to the chaos of life than most films. Throwing a three-act structure to the wind, Amalric pursues the tangents that intrigue him, without having to do the expositional homework that kills so many biopics. Certain scenes are spontaneous and hypnotically erotic, seemingly arising out of nowhere, such as when the singer crosses her legs over a prop man’s lap while he’s driving, or when Brigitte rehearses lines with a man at a bar—a rehearsal that doubles as the “real” version of the scene itself, reaffirming the film’s notion of authenticity as being achieved by profound artifice.
Amalric fashions art that is less driven by a final result than by the ability, or the desire, of artists to live inside it, celebrating the mechanics of process as a form of existential governance. In Barbara, the process of filmmaking is shown to be a nesting series of shells that allow one to be simultaneously freed and lost. This understanding evinces Amalric’s kinship with similarly auto-critical collaborators, such as Alain Resnais, as well as with Barbara herself, who fashioned songs as monuments to her own alternately transcendent and imprisoning self-awareness.