Annette is Cinematic Alchemy at Its Best & Worst
In a post-screening Q&A discussing his new movie, Annette, director Leos Carax extolled the unique virtues of the musical. In musicals, he quietly intoned, you can combine things that are rarely brought together. Intended primarily as praise for the genre, Carax’s comment simultaneously summarizes the unique pleasures and disappointing derivativeness of the reclusive director’s latest film.
Annette is a strange alchemy of operatic melodrama, earnest character drama, and half-baked satire – in descending order of success. Ostensibly telling the love story of zeitgeist-ian comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), his lover and global opera star Ann (Marion Cotillard), and their otherworldly newborn daughter Annette, the film reflects and refracts the inner-workings of memory, moving quickly across large swaths of time, only to stop and linger mostly on small moments. This hurry-up-and-wait approach to linear storytelling is one of Annette’s greatest features, and though it moved too quickly and became too parodic to coax me into any true reflection of what makes up a life, it certainly came close a few times.
In Carax’s last film – 2012’s enigmatic treatise on identity, Holy Motors – I often felt lost, my eyes and brain and heart searching the screen for some sort of meaning (that, it turns out, was part of the point). But Carax’s vision was so singular, and presented with such confident consistency and bombast, I never felt as though he were lost. That isn’t the case with Annette. Adapted from a narrative album by the band Sparks, Carax seems to be leaping from track to track, grasping at some sort of connective tissue lest he fall through the cracks – chasms in the film’s first half that slowly shrink to the size of crevices in a stronger second hour. With each new sequence, Carax feels like his protagonist: “half-horrified, half-relieved...cast[ing his] eyes toward the abyss.”
Each segment is its own story with its own unique style: the unadulterated joy of “So May We Start” is replaced with the Caraxian perversity of Henry McHenry’s “standup comedy”; the massive but hollow oceanside visuals that match the emotional climax stands side-by-side with the intensely personal revelation of The Conductor. Aside from the music of Sparks, all of it is tied loosely together by a series of TV gossip news segments, themselves an exhausting, unfunny example of weak-minded satire. They’re meant as a visual manifestation of the Sparks’ music. They fail to replicate it. And as Carax’s substance continues to push so hard in the opposite direction of Sparks’ musical style, Annette is rarely able to find its footing.
Driver is perfect for the role – his mix of wounded puppy dog and over-the-top grandiosity suits the material perfectly – but it’s a performance that doesn’t let the audience in until its final moments. Haunting as the final scene is, its impact is dulled rather than enhanced after spending two hours on the outside looking in, especially compared to Carax’s prior films which insinuate viewers into their worlds with impressive haste. Cotillard is underutilized, used and discarded like the opera star she portrays. Strangely, it’s the dully named “The Conductor,” played by a searing, scrapping Simon Helberg, that became the beating heart of the film for me.
Critics have gotten used to calling Carax’s films “wild,” and “wholly unexpected,” but what shocked me so thoroughly is just how boring and predictable Annette becomes for long stretches of its runtime. It will delight and shock in fits and starts, but ultimately it feels like the compromised stew of someone who dumped too much into the pot before realizing he had to serve it all as one dish.