In this captivating black-and-white documentary portrait, Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa (Colossal Youth) follows the French performer Jeanne Balibar while she records a drone-rock album and readies for a production of Jacques Offenbach's comic opera La Prichole. The actor-singer is mostly photographed in canted chiaroscuro, face half-hidden in darkness, or in a deep-focus long shot, her slender and sultry figure writhing slowly in the distance. It's as if she's addressing us from the void.
The aesthetic is so consistently stark and surprising---you've never seen shadows as boundlessly black as the ones here---that the film doesn't live or die on the music alone. Balibar doesn't have a smooth singer's voice; it's reedy, abrasive, and Costa shows her working extremely hard to achieve the desired effects. (Perhaps cheekily, the first number is titled "Torture.") Certain scenes, like one in which Balibar hums the same two-phrase refrain numerous times, nearly drive you mad with their willful repetition. Others are daringly dissonant: A long-held close-up of a sleeping cat and a static shot of two elderly Asian women in a coffee shop seem beamed in from another dimension. By the end, you feel curiously closer to the performer and her process without having any clue how you got there. It's exhilarating.