Film

Despite a promising beginning, Leos Carax’s Annette becomes a jumble of styles that falls back on stale, melodramatic tropes. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Annette

Adam Driver as Henry McHenry in Annette.
Credit: Amazon Studios

This review contains spoilers.

Leos Carax’s new musical film Annette begins with the director’s voice over the opening credits. He asks that the audience not “sing, laugh, clap, cry, yawn, boo or fart”. He also requests that we remain still until the movie is over. It’s a cheeky introduction, raising our expectation that the spectacle we are about to see will literally leave us breathless.

The opening sequence seems to justify that self-confident dare. One long, jubilant take begins with Carax behind a mixing deck. The camera swoops in on Ron and Russell Mael, who have performed as Sparks since the early 1970s and have co-written the score and libretto. They start singing “So May We Start”, a propulsive synth earworm of a song, and are joined by the three main actors in Annette – Marion Cotillard, Adam Driver and Simon Helberg – and a quartet of divas who will form a chorus throughout the film. As they stride along the streets of Santa Monica, the sequence links the Analog Age to the Digital, recalling the exuberance of the great Hollywood 1950s musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town, while paying homage to the video clip Baillie Walsh directed for Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”. Driver peels off from the group and the story of Annette begins.

Driver is Henry McHenry, an abrasive comedian who has fallen in love with Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux, a rising star of classical opera. Helberg plays an unnamed accompanist-turned-conductor, who is also in love with Ann. Performing as “The Ape of God”, Henry prepares for his act by shadowboxing and talking to himself, as if he is channelling Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Once he is on stage, there are also hints of Lenny Bruce’s aggression in his act. As Henry, Driver doesn’t conceal his hostility to the audience. There is something genuinely frightening about his performance: we feel the danger integral to the comedy of provocation.

There is no equivalent tension when Ann performs. Cotillard doesn’t have a powerful singing voice and the operatic music that the Mael brothers have written for her is undistinguished. We are told the world regards her as a great talent, but we never believe it. Slowly, the audience goodwill that was garnered from that rousing opening begins to dissipate.

Riffing on A Star Is Born, Henry’s career nosedives as Ann becomes famous. They have a child together, the eponymous Annette, but that can’t save their deteriorating marriage. On a stormy night at sea, as they argue on their yacht, a drunk Henry watches his wife fall into the raging waters and doesn’t attempt to save her. Soon afterwards, he is astonished to discover that the infant child has inherited her mother’s adult voice. He starts exploiting her, manipulating the conductor into training the child, and Annette becomes a sensation equal to her mother.

This overblown melodrama, its indulgence in romantic excess, is often central to Carax’s work. Although I found its relentless sentimentality wearying, The Lovers on the Pont-Neuf (1993) had an internal consistency and I couldn’t help admiring Carax’s unashamed schmaltziness, which borrowed freely from Puccini’s La bohème. It revealed him as an irreverent heir to the theatrical romanticism of Marcel Carné.

Carax’s most successful film, 2012’s Holy Motors, has an equivalent operatic grandeur to its mise en scène. He loves the past yet has no qualms about celebrating contemporary pop culture. Holy Motors worked because it was almost shaved of story: the audience lay back and enjoyed the pyrotechnic panache of the show. That experience did feel breathless.

In Annette, both script and execution seem haphazard. The story is too slight for the long running time and the jumble of styles – the ironic film-within-a-film detachment of “The Ape of God” sequences, the florid lovemaking arias between Ann and Henry, the extravagant theatrical backdrops and the cutesy parodies of online gossip videos that propel Ann and Henry’s story forward – never gel. We sense Carax struggling to make it all cohere.

Annette herself, for most of the running time, is an animatronic creation. It’s charming, until it’s not. And her supposed magical voice is no more than a sub-Enya warble.

The most damning fault with Annette comes from the mismatch between Driver and Cotillard, not as lovers, but as performers within the logic of the film. The volatile, driven Henry is clearly the better artist. The ugly jabs of white-boy rap he spews forth have more potency than Ann’s arias. Cotillard has a luminous presence, yet her lethargy undermines the film.

This misfire arises from the very conception of Ann, rather than from only Cotillard’s performance. In the first establishing shot of her in the back of a limousine she holds an apple, a symbolic link with Eve that the narrative doesn’t justify. In another scene in the back of the car, she watches a celebrity gossip report in which Henry is being accused of sexually assaulting a series of women. There’s a cut and we assume that Ann is awaking from a dream.

We sense that the filmmakers want to investigate the fraught sexual politics of performance that has allowed generations of men to justify aberrant behaviour in the name of controversy and pushing limits. Henry derides opera for being an endless cycle of stories of women suffering and dying, yet his most incendiary moment on stage is to treat his fantasy of brutally killing his wife as a comic turn. The audience within the film turns on him, and at this point his stardom wanes and Ann’s gains the ascendancy.

Yet the politics are undermined by the laziness of how Ann’s character is conceived, and by the passivity with which Cotillard has been directed to play her. If Carax believes that men are doomed to be “angry apes”,  then the corollary is that women are equally fated to subsume their desires within their roles as mother and spouse. Ann shows no envy, no will and no selfishness. It’s a retrograde and infantile conception of the female artist. She’s not Eve. She’s the Madonna.

Carax clearly wishes to tell a story about the pitfalls of fame and the misogyny that has been excused in the name of the liberated artist. However, he deliberately retreats from the controversy he raises, falling back on stale melodramatic tropes. There is a great theme to be explored in the contemporary ideological battles over what can and cannot be permitted in the name of artistic license and freedom. But for those questions to really excite us, to make us leave the film arguing over the fraught issues of censorship and cancel culture, we need to believe that Ann at least desires to be a great artist herself. Without it there is no friction and the ensuing story feels as hackneyed and irrelevant as the classical opera plots that Henry condemns.

The faults of this film don’t only belong to Carax. I’ve long loved the music of Sparks, their sly merging of euphoric disco with the robotic coldness of German art-rock. Yet the score for Annette, particularly its dependence on recitative, rarely allows the music to soar. Equally tiresome is Helberg’s performance as the conductor. In one of the film’s most dynamic scenes, we are being told the story of the conductor’s love of Ann while the camera swoons around him in rehearsal. The music and Carax’s direction seem to be working in unison, in romantic abandon, but Helberg’s mugging makes it impossible to believe that Henry could be jealous of him.

A final scene where Annette visits her father while he is on death row, and where she transforms from animatronic doll to a real child of flesh and blood, has a tough and lovely piquancy in its playing and Carax’s restrained directing. Unfortunately, by this point I had long given up on the movie.

Carax begins with a challenge. He demands that we hold our breath, that we remain in rapt silence. He implies that he will offer us a musical that will be exalting. There is real talent in this film and Driver is magnificent in his fearlessness but the clichéd story sinks the film. Carax doesn’t make good on his dare and Annette quickly becomes tiresome.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "A star is burned".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.