Director: Leos Carax
Stars: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
One imagines a future retirement home for provocateur filmmakers. Gaspar Noé is sat in the games room, muttering to himself and playing checkers with an imaginary opponent. Almodóvar is causing trouble in the canteen, trying to meddle in the daily dishes. And out in the quaint little conservatory sit Von Trier and Carax, blankets on their laps in spite of the balmy heat, chuckling to one another over the times they both created bad-time art-house musicals. Gosh, they were scamps back then.
Von Trier did it back in 2000 with Dancer in the Dark; the Bjork-starring dogme 95-busting death row tearjerker with songs written by Thom Yorke. It’s a milestone of misery, so to speak. Annette doesn’t come close to hitting the same emotionally wrought lows, but neither is it the frivolous confection one immediately imagines when considering musical theatre.
That’s quite probably where the brothers Mael come in. As Sparks, Ron and Russell have created some of the most inventive and arch pop music of the past 50 years. Their songs course with pathos, irony, and an edge of misanthropic sadness. “Some might find me borderline attractive from afar” goes a choice lyric from their relatively recent catalogue. It about sums-up the sting in the tail of a lot of their music; self-deprecating, bordering on vulnerable.
They conceived the story for Annette, wrote the songs, produced the film’s soundtrack and score. Leos Carax has made it their most interesting collaboration since they hooked up with Franz Ferdinand a decade ago.
It’s also been close to a decade since Carax’s last feature; contrarian’s masterpiece Holy Motors. Working predominantly in English for the first time in an already long and creatively prosperous career, the idea of the man locking horns with a musical to break the mainstream is inherently funny, and Annette is quite the smart punchline to those assumptions. It may draw the crowds, but what will they think?
Adam Driver plays the absurdly-named Henry McHenry, a standup comedian and provocateur who approaches performance as a boxer would. He wears a robe and boxer shorts, ducks and weaves, dances on his feet, behaves defensively. Henry is in the first flush of romance with venerated soprano Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) and the two of them navigate falling in love in the public eye. They are yin and yang, high and low, yet their love transcends their differences. Soon, Ann becomes pregnant and daughter Annette is born.
Death hangs over Annette from the beginning. Ann dies on stage night after night and, when Henry’s volatile routine fails to impress, he dies on stage in quite another way. Annette is a tragic piece in which death is constantly present and inescapable. As the couple’s relationship grows strained and Henry dives deeper into alcoholism, one senses something has to give…
This and all that follows is presented less as a traditional Broadway musical with show-stopping numbers, than as a 50/50 split between dialogue spoken and sung, peppered with motifs and refrains that keep music and singing ever-present. The biggest ‘number’ is the film’s tremendous prelude, “So May We Start”. The song is an absolute banger, while its presentation strongly recalls the interlude from Holy Motors in it’s roaming camera and front-on stare. This sequence also sets in stone the Brechtian approach to reality within the film. If you’re willing to accept musical numbers, Carax suggests, there’s no reason not to also welcome characters without names (Simon Helberg’s The Accompanist), rear-projected sea storms, or even a puppet in place of a major character (Annette herself).
This last adds an unexpected flavour of Charlie Kaufman to the mix, recalling the theme of puppetry present throughout Being John Malkovich. Crucially, one might argue, it also helps the film sidestep problematic child exploitation in a story about problematic child exploitation.
References are abound if you want to catch them (I spotted what I feel is a homage to Fire Walk With Me that I wholly acknowledge is a stretch on my part). Yet Carax feels artistically indebted to nobody. With it’s deep greens and shadowy corners, the aesthetic here is wholly his own. Even when he boldly repurposes footage from King Vidor’s The Crowd, Carax imprints it with his own intent. But the film does have multiple masters. Annette represents something of a heady creative collaboration. Visually it is Carax through-and-through, but the spirit of the piece feels entirely that of Sparks. Operatic, audacious, shrewdly self-reflexive.
Is this viewer crazy, or does Driver’s Henry come to look more and more like Ron Mael as the film progresses? The thin moustache… the looming posture… And, going further, might The Accompanist be a loose extension of Russell? The two men take prominence in the second half of the film, even living together, with a creative tension existing between them. Ron’s lyrics have long suggested a less-than-flattering self-portrait; a person prone to introspection and self-criticism. Henry seems to embody this paranoia. He’s a grumpy, angry, often difficult presence. When Ann dreams that Henry is condemned for abusing women, we’re quite easily convinced. Soon after, when Henry presents new material in which he confesses to killing Ann, it’s all too easy to assume that the confessional is truth. Bad omens loom.
Driver is the bravura centre of the whole. Annette may take the title, but this is Henry’s show; a dark character piece that unflinchingly stares back at us as it itemises some particularly masculine frailties. Driver can probably count on an Oscar nomination. And those who have already dismissed Annette as ‘too weird’ for the Academy might do well to remember some of the bolder choices of late. Remember when the story of a woman having sex with a fishman took the top prize?
This is its own kind of whirlwind event cinema. It may confound and frustrate, but it’ll also invigorate and fascinate. Just like Carax. Just like Sparks. A must-see regardless of how you ultimately land on it.