Annette ★★★★½

Just as he did with Holy Motors, Leos Carax inserts himself into the opening of Annette, and in doing so he strips bare the artifice of what we’re about to see. And just as he did then, there’s also a sense here of him testing the burdens of modern life. The director looks as weary and unhappy as ever.

Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a very McNabokovian name. He’s a stand-up comedian of the angry, offensive variety, whose fame seems derived from his willingness to shock, or as he tells it, to kill his audience, rather than from any apparent sense of humour. His act is the apotheosis of insincerity and leans in hard to the shocking behaviour that helps drive social media popularity stakes. He woos and then marries Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), a famous opera singer, whose job sees her die every night in front of an adoring audience. Henry kills them, and Ann dies for them; and so it seems opposites do attract.

They have a baby, Annette, who just so happens to be a wooden puppet, but this incongruity is never remarked upon. The kill and die relationship of Henry and Ann plays out, and little Annette is left an innocent victim with a voice that rises and shines brightly in the moonlit darkness. 

This is a musical that plays in the register of dark night and moonlight. Henry is the force of darkness, Ann is the force of purity and these two archetypal characters are ultimately less human and more wooden than the baby puppet who emerges as the emotional core of the film. The little girl’s an object made flesh, achieving a beguiling sincerity from out of the abysm of her father’s darkness. She denies the vacuity of celebrity, she denounces aggression and hate, and she redeems the faults and fates of her parents. She’s an adorable and very brave little log.

The problem I generally have with musicals is they weaken the drama and enfeeble the music. The songs inevitably stretch the material, telling at length what body language or non-verbal musical cues can reveal in an instant. And so to work for me they have to compensate these losses. Ideally this should be via the quality of the music itself. Also, the artifice of the musical form should enable a palpable sense of fantasy. And ideally the fantasy should be accompanied by a sharp edge of irony to cut through the residual sugar. In my opinion, Annette scores well on all three of these points.

Firstly then, the music. Now don’t get me wrong, this is no Tristan und Isolde. I listened to the soundtrack ahead of seeing the film and I found it coarse and monotonous. But positioned where it belongs in the film I was surprised to find it worked very well. It is in tune with the story’s tale of light and shade, and lends it the nuance and energy needed to sustain the genre’s inevitable over-extensions. I also greatly appreciated how the film’s most aggressive song’s refrains of “fuck off, fuck off, get out of here” did the trick on the man in the audience who’d been on his bright-lit phone for fifteen minutes before the song finally drove him out of the theatre. I was sorely tempted to sing along as he left. 

As for fantasy, well this is the film’s greatest strength. Annette is a strangely wonderful invention that spins its simple elements into a one-of-a-kind experience. It twists the melodramatic ingredients of love, fame, jealousy, anger and innocence into a fantastical head spin. I never really knew where this was taking me and even if I did I doubt it would have really mattered because there are so many enjoyable details to savour along the way. I’d have loved Carax’s regular alter-ego, Denis Lavant, to have had a walk-on role, but as an example of the details that I mention, did anyone else think Annette’s first toddles were modelled on Lavant’s gait? 

Finally, Annette is rich in irony, such that the film never feels cloying. It’s always defying expectations and commenting on itself. The music is not so much a Rock Opera as a kind of Mock Opera, embracing the Musical genre’s tropes without taking them too seriously. The villainous McHenry character upends those memories of Adam Driver’s sweet musical moment in Marriage Story, with his mostly gruff delivery here. And I’ve already mentioned the wooden humans and human puppet inversion trick, with the latter’s beguiling sincerity somehow rising from out of the shadow of darkness and from under the spotlight of celebrity. These are all ironies and subversions that give the otherwise simple, though fantastical story, delicious texture and bite. 

Returning at last to the beginning and to Carax asking us may we start? and it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that what we’ve just witnessed is another of his self-reflexive works. Is McHenry a projection of Carax’s own self-loathing? A charlatan, perhaps, not unlike the director’s view of himself. Both character and director have been left holding a young daughter and will forever be haunted by the tragic death of their partners. Carax is never literal in his works, so we’ll likely never know how much of himself he’s pouring into the story, but the echoes are there, and the beat is strong, and against all the odds, and through all the irony, I felt there was a hurting heart in this. Knowing now where the film goes, and looking back at that opening where Carax miserably gets the show on the road, while his real life daughter Nastya looks on, it’s easy to imagine her dead mother and Carax’s former partner haunting everything that follows.

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