It’s got big stars and a Sparks soundtrack and a prime spot on international cinema’s biggest stage, but Leos Carax’s Cannes opener Annette is an altogether weirder, more troubling and personal film than one might expect. I have no idea what a festival audience slavering for news and hype after a year-plus stuck indoors will make of something so tonally out there and so brazen, so alienating. But I suspect that, if nothing else, this astoundingly beautiful picture will stand the test of time.
A wildly melodramatic rock opera prone to insane flights of desire, despair, and dorkiness, Annette is gloriously artificial, often daring us to take it seriously. If the opening number, in which the director, his daughter, and his cast all join Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks as they walk out of a recording studio and onto the streets of Los Angeles singing “So May We Start?,” doesn’t clue us into this, perhaps the moment when Adam Driver lifts his head from Marion Cotillard’s crotch in the middle of performing cunnilingus to sing a love song might. Or maybe we’ll have to wait until a bit later, when Cotillard gives birth to the couple’s big-eared, creepy puppet baby, to be fully convinced. The film sprinkles the strangest gags in the middle of its most earnest moments. It is both blunt and baffling, undercutting itself repeatedly. That tension continues until its final, utterly devastating duet — and then you realize that, incredibly, this has been its breathtakingly nutty plan all along.
The unlikely romance between famed soprano Anne Defrasnoux (Cotillard) and stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Driver) has already begun when Annette starts, so we have little insight into their attraction or even how they met. All we know is that they are madly in love — they tell us with a song called “We Love Each Other So Much,” in which they sing about their counterintuitive, illogical, unplanned affair. But the film already takes place in a world that doesn’t make sense. McHenry, who calls himself “the ape of God,” has risen to fame on a comedy act in which he wanders around the stage making bitter pronouncements, telling bitter stories, and bitterly singing snatches of songs. There’s nothing funny or even witty about any of it, but his audience eats it up, laugh-singing in unison like a chorus — they’re part of the act, part of the twisted logic of Annette’s color-coordinated, rear-projection-heavy, musical-cinematic alt-universe. (The film, by the way, originated as a script by the Maels themselves, but it’s clear that Carax has put his own defiant spin on it.)
That their relationship has placed Henry and Anne on a crash course with each other’s competing attitudes and energies is obvious — it’s an idea presented, in the film’s adorably literal-minded way, by a dream sequence in which her limo crashes into his motorcycle. Their young child, Annette, is played for most of the movie by an actual puppet, one presumably ready to be pulled this way and that by both mom and dad. Stages in their relationship are underlined and introduced by poppy, showbiz news interludes in which cheerful narrators talk about what these two hot celebs are currently up to: getting hitched; having a baby; um, taking a yacht trip to repair their troubled marriage.
But all this overstatement sets the stage for something far more intimate, sincere, and, yes, subtle. The first line of dialogue in the film is spoken by Carax himself, telling his daughter Nastya that the show is about to start. Nastya’s mother was Carax’s muse and partner, Yekaterina Golubeva, the star of his somewhat-cursed 1999 effort Pola X, and her 2011 death haunted Holy Motors, particularly in a deeply moving musical scene featuring Kylie Minogue. A similar specter looms over Annette — one of loss and guilt and grief and the way they feed on our self-loathing. “This horrid urge to look below,” Henry sings. “Half-horrified, half-relieved, I cast my eyes towards the abyss.” Darkness, depression, disgust are monsters, yes, but they’re seductive monsters. And Henry, whom Carax often frames looming over Anne like a giant demon of angry possibility, is the most seductive monster of them all. The couple’s secluded home in the woods, surrounded by an overgrown forest and dominated by a luminous, otherworldly green pool, itself feels like an enchanted cottage straight out of some sinister fairy tale.
Carax has never not made a personal film, but even by his standards, Annette is strikingly naked. That’s the right word, too, because the characters feel so physically exposed — not just during the sex scenes but at other times, too. Henry performs in a long green bathrobe with nothing on underneath except a pair of shorts; at one point he moons his audience. Anne so often seems to be in just a slip. The cosmic membrane separating their lives from total public exposure seems so fragile. If the opening lines were of the director calling his daughter to join him for the show, the final lines are muttered indignantly at the audience: “Stop watching me.” Almost as if he and his movie have said too much.
It goes even deeper than that, however. Carax has always been fascinated by the push-pull between the refined and the base, between divine inspiration and coarse, grotesque instinct. (Holy Motors was all about this conflict, among other things.) His characters are trolls and angels, their inner lives conveyed through outsize, surreal movements, gestures, dances. In the bond between Henry and Anne, the director has found an ideal portrait of this dynamic, one that reaches beyond the paradoxes of mere romance and into the cruel, counterintuitive magic of the creative act itself.
Henry, who prepares for his act by practicing boxing moves backstage, rages against his adoring crowd, holding them in contempt to their faces, even as they eat it up. Driver, such a physically imposing, intense, glowering presence, is inspired casting here: Henry seems unable to express any joy, grace, or awe — a tragic flaw that inspires a heartbreaking song late in the film. Anne’s art, meanwhile, is elegant, genteel, redemptive. (We don’t really see her audience, however; it’s clear Carax identifies more with Henry than with Anne.) After their respective shows, when Anne asks Henry how his act went, he says he “killed” them. When he asks how hers went, she says she “saved” them. He, like a good comedian, is always killing, and she, like a good soprano, is always dying.
And Annette the movie, like Annette the child, is caught in the middle. As with the greatest of pictures, it creates its own language, makes its formal case for itself as it proceeds. More than anything, it plays like a rumination on what lies behind the artistic impulse: Is it sadism or grace? Loving or loathing? Does the artist want to hurt the audience or to redeem them? What better way to contemplate that question than with a film that does both?
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