Leos Carax’s new music film Annette begins with the director’s voice in the opening credits. He asks the audience “not to sing, laugh, clap, cry, yawn, boo or fart”. He also asks us to stay silent until the movie is over. It’s a cheeky introduction that raises our expectation that the spectacle we’re about to see will literally take our breath away.
The opening sequence seems to justify this confident venture. A long, cheering take begins with Carax behind a mixing deck. The camera falls on Ron and Russell Mael, who have appeared as Sparks since the early 1970s and co-wrote the score and libretto. They sing “So May We Start”, a driving synth catchy tune of a song, and are accompanied by the three main actors in Annette – Marion Cotillard, Adam Driver and Simon Helberg – and a quartet of divas who form a choir the entire time Movie. As they stroll through the streets of Santa Monica, the sequence blends the analogue with the digital, evoking the exuberance of the great Hollywood musicals of the 1950s like Singin ‘in the Rain and On the Town while watching the Baillie Walsh video clip. pays homage to direction for Massive Attacks “Unfinished Sympathy”. Driver breaks away from the group and Annette’s story begins.
Driver is Henry McHenry, an aggressive comedian who fell in love with Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux, a rising star of classical opera. Helberg plays a nameless companion who became a conductor, who is also in love with Ann. As « The Ape of God », Henry prepares for his act by shadow boxing and talking to himself like he’s channeling Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Once on stage there is also evidence of Lenny Bruce’s aggression in his act. As Henry, Driver does not hide his hostility towards the audience. There’s something really scary about his performance: we sense the danger associated with the comedy of provocation.
There is no equivalent tension when Ann appears. Cotillard does not have a powerful singing voice and the operatic music the Mael brothers wrote for her is unremarkable. We’re told the world thinks she’s a great talent, but we never believe it. Slowly the audience benevolence that was won by this sweeping opening is beginning to dissipate.
When Ann becomes famous, Henry’s career crashes on A Star Is Born. They have a child together, the eponymous Annette, but that cannot save their crumbling marriage. On a stormy night at sea while they are arguing on their yacht, a drunk Henry watches his wife fall into the raging water and does not try to save her. Shortly afterwards, he is amazed to find that the toddler has inherited the adult voice of its mother. He begins to exploit her, manipulates the conductor to train the child, and Annette becomes a sensation on a par with her mother.
This exuberant melodrama, his indulging in romantic excess, is often the focus of Carax ‘ Plant. Though I found his relentless sentimentality tiresome, The Lovers on the Pont-Neuf (1993) had an intrinsic permanence and I couldn’t help but admire Carax’s outrageous fatigue, freely borrowed from Puccini’s La bohème. It revealed him as the disrespectful heir to Marcel Carné’s theatrical romance.
Carax’s most successful film, Holy Motors from 2012, has an operatic size that matches his mise en scène. He loves the past but has no qualms about celebrating contemporary pop culture. Holy Motors worked because there was almost no story left: the audience sat back and enjoyed the pyrotechnic swing of the show. This experience was breathless.
With Annette, both script and execution seem haphazard. The story is too small for the long running time and the confusion of styles – the ironic film-in-film replacement of « The Ape of God » sequences, the florid love arias between Ann and Henry, the extravagant theater sets and the cute ones Parodies of online gossip videos that propel Ann and Henry’s story forward – never gel. We feel how Carax struggles to bring everything into harmony.
Most of the time Annette herself is an animatronic creation. It’s charming until it’s no more. And her supposedly magical voice is nothing more than a sub-Enya warble.
The worst mistake with Annette lies in the discrepancy between Driver and Cotillard, not as lovers, but as actors within the logic of the film. The volatile, driven Henry is clearly the better artist. The ugly lashes of white boy rap he spits out have more power than Ann’s arias. Cotillard has a glowing presence, but her lethargy undermines the film.
This misfire stems from Ann’s conception, not just from Cotillard’s performance. In the first recording of her in the back of a limousine, she is holding an apple, a symbolic connection to Eva that does not justify the story. In another scene in the back of the car, she sees a celebrity gossip report accusing Henry of sexually abusing a number of women. There’s a cut and we’re assuming Ann is waking up from a dream.
We sense the filmmakers want to explore the strained sexual politics of performance that has allowed generations of men to engage in deviant behavior in the name of controversy and to justify crossing borders. Henry mocks the opera as an endless cycle of stories about suffering and dying women, but his most burning moment on stage is treating his fantasy of brutally killing his wife as a comic twist. The audience in the film turns against him, and at that point his fame wanes and Anns gains supremacy.
Yet politics is undermined by the laziness in how Ann’s character is conceived and the passivity with which Cotillard instructs was playing them. If Carax believes that men are doomed to be « angry monkeys, » then the corollary is that women are equally destined to incorporate their desires into their roles as mothers and spouses. Ann shows no envy, no will and no selfishness. It is a retrograde and infantile idea of the artist. She is not Eva. She is the Madonna.
Carax clearly wants to tell a story about the pitfalls of fame and misogyny apologized on behalf of the freed artist. However, he deliberately withdraws from the controversy he raises and resorts to old-fashioned melodramatic tropes. In the contemporary ideological struggles over what can and cannot be allowed in the name of artistic freedom and freedom, there is a great subject to be explored. But for these questions to really excite us, for us to get out of the movie and argue over the thorny issues of censorship and the abolition of culture, we have to believe that Ann wants to at least be a great artist herself. Without it there is no friction and the following story feels as trite and irrelevant as the classic operatic acts that Henry condemns.
The flaws in this film are not just Carax’s. I’ve loved Sparks’ music for a long time, its clever fusion of euphoric disco with the robotic coldness of German art rock. But the score for Annette, especially her dependence on the recitative, seldom makes the music soar. Helberg’s performance as a conductor is just as tiring. In one of the most dynamic scenes in the film, we are told the conductor’s love story for Ann as the camera faints around him during rehearsals. The music and direction of Carax seem to be in tune, in romantic devotion, but Helberg’s assault makes it impossible to believe that Henry could be jealous of him.
One final scene in which Annette visits her father while he sits on death row, and in which she transforms from an animatronic doll into a real child made of flesh and blood, has a hard and lovely sharpness in her play and Carax’s reserved direction. Unfortunately, I had long since given up filming at this point.
Carax starts with a challenge. He demands that we hold our breath, that we remain in tense silence. He indicates that he will offer us a musical that will inspire. There is real talent in this film and Driver is great at his fearlessness, but the clichéd story boggles the film. Carax does not do justice to his risk and Annette quickly gets bored.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on. released
08/28/2021 as « A star is burnt ».
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is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is the film critic for The Saturday Paper.
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