Annette is somehow both Carax’s weirdest and safest film, a letdown even as its vision remains bold.
One-time enfant terrible Leos Carax, foremost contemporary purveyor of l’amour fou, the missing link between the nouvelle vague and the cinema du look, fervent admirer of Stallone’s Paradise Alley, and creator of one of the great, grand cinematic follies of the 20th Century (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) and one of its most unjustly maligned maudits (Pola X), has suddenly turned into an elder statesman of art cinema at the age of 60. It’s been nine long years since his last feature, Holy Motors, and like that cornucopia of strange, intoxicating imagery, his new film Annette is yet another wild swing at the fences, the work of a man who seems skeptical of ever making another “next” film and is therefore determined to indulge every whim, every passing fancy as if it’s a last gasp. Like his rough contemporaries Andre Techine and Olivier Assayas, Carax has always been in thrall to the power of music as accompaniment to his own grand gestures; there’s the operatic fervor of Pont-Neuf, Denis Lavant’s gangly, leaping, almost orgasmic dance to Bowie’s Modern Love in Mauvais Sang, the show-stopping accordion sing-a-long in Holy Motors, and in particular the Scott Walker industrial noise-symphony that animates much of the second half of Pola X. It isn’t much of a surprise, then, that he’d be drawn to a full-blown musical, nor is it surprising that he’d be enamored of the music of Ron and Russell Mael, who perform as the cult favorite Sparks (Carax did guest vocals on one of their tracks a few years ago). What is surprising, though, is that much of Annette feels shockingly inert, a series of undernourished or otherwise underwhelming ideas strung together only by Carax’s occasionally fevered mise en scene and an aggressively outsized performance from Adam Driver.
The 2021 Cannes Film Festival couldn’t have picked a better opening night film than Annette; after the in-person 2020 fest was canceled, Annette opened this year’s French fest with an almost meta-textual entreaty titled “So May We Start.” Carax and his actual daughter Nastya Golubeva Carax sit outside a recording booth as the Mael’s and their backing band tune their instruments. Carax speaks the phrase into a microphone, and Russell begins tentatively singing, while Ron starts playing a simple repeated key on his keyboard. The song grows, adding layers of sound until the entire band gets up and exits the studio, walking out onto the street as cast members Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg join in, singing along. It’s a thrilling moment, full of verve and energy, and it’s a catchy, witty song to boot.
And so the film does indeed start, as Adam Driver’s edgy standup comedian Henry McHenry prepares for a show, shadow boxing in a robe while chain-smoking and stubbing a banana peel out like a used cigarette butt. He emerges onto the stage through a haze of smoke and launches into a ridiculous routine, needling the audience and hurling invective as Driver lurches in and out of singing and speaking (every actor does their own singing, presumably a gesture to other modernist musicals). It’s purposely artificial, the packed crowd emitting canned laughter at Henry’s every gesture, but it rings false, a stale satirical take on nacho stand ups at least a decade past its sell date. Carax then introduces Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux, an opera singer who dies on stage each night. It’s a whirlwind romance between the two mismatched lovers, with intimations of both Adam & Eve and Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, which Carax puts too fine a point on. Their relationship is summed up in a simplistic, repetitive song that has the two flatly stating over and over that “we are in love,” while TMZ-style news clips occasionally pop up to remind us that these two are the biggest celebrities in the world.
After a particularly egregious song where Henry gets “canceled” via a group of “#MeToo” women, Ann becomes pregnant. In the film’s largest leap from any kind of recognizable reality, their baby, Annette, is revealed to be a puppet. It’s a bold choice, casually surreal and thematically charged. Eventually, McHenry teams up with Helberg’s Conductor, who is in love with Ann and hopes to protect her child from McHenry, and the two begin touring with young Annette. She’s become an internet sensation, racking up millions of views on YouTube, and Driver fully tilts into villainous Svengali, as his attempts to manipulate her fame occupy much of the film’s second half. There’s not much more plot than that, and it would be criminal to reveal two major narrative pivots, but Driver eventually emerges as the film’s main character. The repetitive nature of Sparks’ songs, coupled with the full immersion into McHenry’s misanthropic, toxic worldview makes for a particularly sour viewing experience. Carax at least manages a couple of breathtaking moments; there’s an early scene where Ann is performing and the stage behind her opens up into an expansive artificial forest, allowing her to cross back and forth between two different worlds. But Annette’s greatest set piece comes at the halfway point, as Henry and Ann argue while on a boat, a storm raging around them, and it’s filmed using old-fashioned rear projection techniques. It’s a clear nod to Jean Vigo, a constant touchstone for Carax throughout his career, and one of the few times that the action on screen matches the volatility of the characters’ emotions.
But there’s also a lot of telling instead of showing, as song lyrics bluntly state Ann and Henry’s interior states, and for every beautiful image that Carax creates, there’s others that fall victim to the flat, muddy palate of much contemporary digital cinematography. For her (its) part, Annette never becomes much of an actual character, instead acting as a symbolic catalyst for Henry’s fears and regrets as he fails at being both a father and husband. It’s hard not to read at least some auto-critique into this scenario; as the film progresses, Driver acquires a mustache that gives him a passing resemblance to Carax himself. Further, the presence of Carax’s daughter at the film’s beginning suggests that the familial relationship between volatile artist and innocent youth was not far from his mind. Indeed, the film ends with a remarkable moment of clarity, as a now adolescent Annette confronts Henry and all the demons of the past come gushing out. Wisely, Carax doesn’t offer absolution, only the crushing realization that one is destined to be alone for the rest of their life. It’s emotionally honest in a way that the rest of Annette is not, too concerned is it with silly, cliched notions of celebrity and cartoonish melodrama. And at the risk of angering Sparks fans, the music just isn’t much to write home about, either. It’s a bold, brash film, certainly destined for some kind of cult status, and it seems inconceivable that something so willfully strange will be readily available on a major corporate streaming platform. And yet, it’s nowhere near the film that Pont-Neuf is, nor is it as tantalizingly dark and strange as Pola X. Somehow, Carax has simultaneously made both his weirdest and safest movie.
You can currently catch Leos Carax’s Annette in theaters or stream it on Amazon Prime beginning on August 20.