Amy Taubin on Leos Carax’s Annette (2021)
LEOS CARAX’S ANNETTE IS A MONSTER, a misery, an astoundingly raw movie/musical theater hybrid. It was the first film I saw in a screening room after fourteen months of pandemic isolation so circumstances may have played a part in my being so bouleversé. Also, I was sitting in the first row, the screen was very wide, and Carax doesn’t stint on close-ups. In any case, this is a film about a man who is fucking angry, and his anger went straight to my solar plexus, shaking me around for two hours. It also unleashed a torrent of associations, most of them cued by the director. In the end titles, Carax thanks, among others, Bela Bartok and Bela Balazs (composer/writer of the one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle), Edgar Allan Poe, Steven Sondheim, and King Vidor. I flashed on Angela Carter’s 1979 story “The Bloody Chamber,” a feminist revision of the Bluebeard story that I wished Carax had read, but also The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Beauty and the Beast (the Cocteau version), Green for Danger (Sidney Gilliat, 1946) and tabloid spreads on the drowning of Natalie Wood. That is to say, when a director employs a cinematic language as deep and rich as Carax does, it prompts the viewers’ own movie memories. The result is a shared opening to the unconscious, the kind that’s sometimes labeled as surrealism.
With original story and music by Sparks and lyrics by Ron Mael, Russell, and LC (Leos Carax), Annette is a full-on musical, with some forty songs. Many are fragments, and only two are truly memorable, but that’s enough. When the actors aren’t singing, they are speaking as actors speak in musicals—with instrumentation pulsing beneath their voices and a delivery halfway between speech and song. The moments when the music drops away, leaving the actors’ voices stripped naked, are few but devastating. What makes Annette formally complex and compelling is the marriage of Sparks’s precise but driving percussion and rhythm sections and Carax’s expansive, unpredictable, even Wagnerian onslaught of lighting and camera moves.
Annette is a melodrama and a critique of the same, the story of a doomed romance between two performers, itself framed as a theatrical performance. At the opening, red theater curtains part to reveal a recording studio in which Sparks and their back-up singers are setting up. We hear Carax, in voiceover, say, “So now we start,” and in response the entire cast—actors, musicians, singers clad in Kelly green polyester nightwear—assembled as if for a group portrait with Carax and his teenage daughter in the back row, answer with the opening song “May we start.” The pun in the lyric makes it both question and answer, since “may we” in English sounds identical to “mais oui” (but yes) in French. This is Carax’s first English-language film and it’s putatively set in the US although it actually takes place in the international dreamscape of the movies. Soon the group ambles onto an actual street in Santa Monica. As they walk, they sing and the film seems as if it could be a light-hearted comedy, until Adam Driver, who has been walking with his costar, Marion Cotillard, peels off from the group and, on the run, dons a forest green motorcycle jacket and black helmet, jumps on his bike, and rides off into the darkness.
Driver plays Henry McHenry, a stand-up comedian whose show is titled “The Ape of God.” In the way that opposites attract, his girlfriend, Ann (Cotillard), is a world-renowned opera soprano, half his size and in manner as reserved as Henry is unbridled. He is physically overbearing, self-hating, a menace to himself and everyone around him. The more angry and provocative his act, the more his audience eggs him on. Henry lopes around the stage, dressed in a dark hooded bathrobe resembling De Niro’s in the slo-mo prologue to Raging Bull. It’s a classic actor’s nightmare—finding oneself on stage in one’s underwear. Add to that, his mike is attached to thirty feet of weirdly organic-looking cable, not unlike the umbilical cord he’s called upon to cut when Ann delivers a child, Baby Annette, who emerges looking like an old-fashioned puppet with a troubled brow, and ears like Howdy Dowdy. That Carax makes these elements cohere into a fantasy that is both primal and extravagantly sophisticated, and which at moments inspires tragic pity and terror, is an amazing cinematic accomplishment.
Henry and Ann’s love affair is doomed from the start. Not only does Henry wonder what Ann sees in him, he resents her success, specifically that she is adored for dying as grand opera heroines always do, either by their own hand or at the hands of another. For Henry, Ann is female victimhood personified, and it is inevitable that Henry would want to lend his own hand to the process. The film’s two stunning set pieces are Henry’s first performance for a cheering crowd and his second—a career-ending debacle in Las Vegas in which he acts out how he would kill his wife. Nearly as hazardous and ultimately as memorable is a scene, shot in close-ups, in which Henry goes down on Ann as they duet on “We Love Each Other So Much,” the film’s lovely though overly used ballad. (Hi reader, I bet that woke you up.) There also are two great scenes nearer to the end, but I don’t want to give those away. If the film has a flaw, it is that Driver’s performance nearly obliterates Cotillard’s, thereby reasserting a gender-defined power dynamic that Carax wants to remedy. For that to change, we must believe in the human future of Baby Annette.
Annette opened the Cannes Film Festival on July 6. It opens in theaters in the US on August 6 and streams a week later.