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Say this for Leos Carax’s Annette: for a 2 ½ hour film it never dragged, and I never got bored. I enjoyed the beautiful imagery and fabulous music by Sparks, and although I took an aisle seat in close proximity to the restrooms, I never had a bladder emergency (which I increasingly think is a psychosomatic reaction to tiresome movies). That doesn’t make it a successful film. Like other filmmakers swept away by their concepts, narrative and drama get lost in the visionary ether. At every step of the way, the director’s brilliant touches are matched by narrative missteps.
The film is billed as a musical, but it’s more of an opera, like Ken Russell’s rock opera Tommy, meaning it’s nearly all singing all the time. Annette tells the story first of the ecstatic, Wagnerian love story between Henry, a stand-up comic (played by Adam Driver) and Ann, an opera singer (Marion Cotillard).
Henry is a combination of Lenny Bruce (distilling his demons into his act) and Andy Kauffman (mind-bendingly conceptual). Driver gives a terrific performance, seemingly ripping out pieces of his own psyche and churning them in the character. He’s obsessed with “killing” the audience, and admits that it’s to “disarm” them — kill them before they kill you.
One problem with Henry’s characterization is that the audience seems part of his act. We lose the sense of Henry as a disturbed character because everyone else is acting batty, like a built-in Rocky Horror Picture Show sing-along. We never see him interacting with his entourage or other comics. We never get a hint of his past.
Ms. Cotillard’s character is even more vague. She’s supposed to be an opera singer, but we always see her alone on stage, singing the same aria. Just as Henry “kills” night after night, Ann “dies”, like an archetypal Camille figure. While Ms. Cotillard makes for a ravishing diva, we don’t see her in the context of her regular life, or know anything about her.
Ann is French (and played by a French star), but she hardly utters a word in French. Curiously, her Frenchness never figures in the movie. Yet, on one level, Annette is an encounter of American neurotic will with European aesthetics. This isn’t surprising as Carax himself is half-American (his mother is the film critic Joan Dupont).
Georges Bataille and other writers of a romantic inclination like to say that love between two people shuts out the rest of the world, and creates its own ecstatic universe. We’d have more of a sense of this if Carax had shown us the two protagonists meeting, connecting, and then launching into a transformative space. It’s why the proverbial romance formula is “Boy Meets Girl” (the director ought to know — that was the title of his first feature). Perhaps he feels that he’s been there, done that.
Likewise with the film’s style. The advantage of a traditional musical is that there are the talking passages to represent normal reality, which the actors then use as a springboard to a higher level of feeling when they break into song. In Annette, aside from the ever-present music, the imagery is always at a high pitch, less like a film than a spectacular music video.
When the director gets around to plot, it’s disappointing — the well-worn A Star Is Born narrative: Henry declines while Ann is on the rise. Unfortunately, we never had any clear idea of Henry as a superstar, with Ann not quite there yet. And we don’t really get a precise sense of his decline or her ascent. Carax cheesily resorts to interpolating mock gossip news reports to do the work that he and the screenwriters haven’t done.
He follows this with more melodrama, transparently based on the actress Nathalie Wood’s 1981 death on a yacht, officially ruled an accident, but which some have accused her husband Robert Wagner of committing. We get more visual/musical Sturm and Drang (and a literal tempest), but not having had any dramatic build-up, it feels contrived. Also, Carax can’t quite bring himself to paint his protagonist as a wife killer, so we get ambiguity instead of murderous passion.
Carax’ final touch concerns the couple’s child, Annette. When they have their baby, she’s presented as an animatronix puppet. Shades of David Lynch’s Eraserhead! Shades of all those movies about AI-generated automatons! Shades of Luc Besson’s Arthur and the Minimoys! The creepy cuteness evokes Besson most of all. When Henry discovers that his daughter possesses her murdered mother’s vocal gift he turns her into a novelty star: Baby Annette. He does this with the help of the musician-conductor (Simon Helberg in a strong performance) who’d been Ann’s accompanist — and lover. And maybe Annette’s real father. No spoilers regarding the twisted melodramatic tale, but in show biz terms it comes to a head with a concert at the halftime of the “Hyperbowl”. This is all over the top — glitzy, parodistic, FX-heavy — in the low-brow style of Besson. Carax has yet another technical trick up his sleeve, which I also won’t spoil.
I don’t buy the half-baked ideas suggested in Annette, or the over-intellectual, over-romantic, over-everything vision. But as with late-phase Godard (an obvious influence), we sit back and take in the images. They’re extraordinary to behold with both eye and ear, and as with great opera, they often take you into a realm of emotion that’s very special. But some viewers will still want a seat near the aisle.
Production: Arte France Cinéma
Distribution: UGC/Amazon Studios
Lead photo credit : A still of Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver in Annette © youtube trailer