Dir: Leos Carax. Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg. 15, 140 mins.
Love doesn’t die so much as implode – or so goes the wisdom of Leos Carax’s Annette, a musical that tracks the familiar arc of a celebrity marriage with such strange ferocity that it burns like a meteor. A comedian, Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), and an opera singer, Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), see their wild love tested by the birth of their child, Annette. They serenade each other with songs written by Ron and Russell Mael, of the band Sparks.
Annette is a fully articulated puppet, though no one ever acknowledges it – she’s merely one small part of Carax’s manically artificial world, where the barrier between the stage and the world beyond it is both superficial and easily dissolvable. Henry and Ann sing while they have sex. They sing while they’re on the toilet. They sing while they waltz on the deck of a sinking yacht. Carax seems to have a personal fixation on the co-dependent relationship between art and audience – it was at the very heart of his last feature, 2012’s Holy Motors, and once again rears its head in Annette. The film begins with Sparks setting up their instruments, while the actors address the camera and welcome us all to their performance with the words: “‘But where’s the stage?’ you wonder. Is it outside? Or is it within?”
Carax wants his audience to question who exactly these people are living their lives for. Is it themselves? Or an ever-present, though invisible, public? While Henry’s onstage shtick of dipping into peppy, musical asides seems to have been borrowed from comedian-of-the-moment Bo Burnham, the content of his jokes is so fused with self-flagellating misery and bloated ego that it’s grown monstrous. Annette does view art through a binary, and relatively simplistic, take on the male and female lens. After a great show, Henry will boast that he’s “killed” and “destroyed” his audience. Ann, in response, will purr that she’s “saved” hers.
Driver, whether in HBO’s Girls or the Star Wars franchise, has shown incredible skill in crafting characters of acute, frightening unpredictability. At any moment, his voice might rise a few octaves or his limbs might jerk out in some surreal but balletic fashion. He works in thrilling contrast to Cotillard, who’s always carried with her a sense of near-supernatural serenity – as if those doe eyes don’t just look at people, but into their future. Henry becomes so lost in the projection of himself as a fated genius (he even goes by the name “the Ape of God”) that Ann now wakes up every morning to a stranger.
There’s a deliberate garishness to some of Carax’s work. Plot points here are delivered by a showbiz news channel that seems to have been entirely produced on Microsoft PowerPoint. And his hodgepodge approach to pop culture not only encompasses Burnham’s stand-up specials, but the drones used in Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show. That compulsion towards showmanship is regularly anchored, though, by the contributions of the Mael brothers, who came up with the film’s concept, co-wrote its screenplay, and wrote its soundtrack. There is a delicacy and a sincerity to their work – a careful manipulation of who sings when and who talks when, so that music itself becomes a vessel for its characters’ emotional unravelling. When it comes to Annette, the world’s only a stage for its fools.
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