Film Review – Annette
Director Leos Carax’s Annette (2021) is frustrating, surreal, and beautiful – and in certain flashes maybe even brilliant. It has all the facets of a romantic musical fantasy, but in a strange way works in opposition to the genre. There are themes of love and relationships, but it operates like an anti-love story. We get grand, sweeping musical sequences about art, celebrity, and fame, but the film seems repulsed by all of them. Where La La Land (2016) was a celebration of the dream machine that is Los Angeles, Annette appears to view Tinseltown as more of a nightmare.
Right away, we are put on notice that the narrative is aware of our existence. During the opening credits, we hear a voiceover demanding there be no disruptions during the show – we’re even ordered to hold our breath. The opening musical number, “So May We Start,” refers to the movie beginning, with the cast and crew marching from a recording studio out on the street in one long unbroken take – Carax included. There is an intended artificiality running all throughout the narrative. Scenes are staged, acted, and sung with an unnatural quality. Jump cuts take us from scene to scene abruptly, almost cutting right in the middle of dialogue.
This style can be maddening, and in certain moments Carax’s directing leaves us feeling out of sync, like you’re trying write using your off hand. Many will compare the bizarre, off-kilter imagery to the work of David Lynch. Ron and Russell Mael (who form the musical duo, The Sparks) supplied both the screenplay and the music, and in both they provide a feverish, dreamlike quality. At the center is Henry (Adam Driver) and Ann (Marion Cotillard). Henry is a standup comic, whose performances hinge on his loathing of both comedy and the audiences that come to his shows. Ann is a famous opera singer, with adoring fans across the world.
When we first meet them, Henry and Ann are head over heels in love. During the song, “We Love Each Other So Much,” the two walk hand in hand through trees and open fields with a sun-kissed glow about them. Their aura calls to mind the young romance of a Jacques Demy musical, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) or The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). But like the rest of Annette, Henry and Ann’s relationship often feels like a performance. When they make love, it’s as though they are simply going through the motions. When they have a child, Annette (of whom we get the film’s title), it plays as though they are going through pregnancy and birth because that’s what couples in love are supposed to do.
Soon, cracks in their relationship emerge, and that’s where Annette takes a turn that might push some viewers away. The tone gets noticeably darker, and an underlying malevolence starts to seep through the edges. The introduction of a young orchestra conductor (Simon Helberg) changes the dynamic between Henry, Ann, and Annette. The hazy glow of the earlier scenes is replaced with menacing shadows – heavy with anger, selfishness, and tragedy. In most musicals, the centerpiece would feature the lovers dancing among the stars or underneath the shimmering light of the big city. Here, our couple bobbles and trips over each other on a boat in the middle of raging storm. The symbolism, suffice to say, is not subtle.
It’s in the second half that we discover that Annette is not about the love story, or Hollywood, or even about Annette herself. It’s about Henry. Adam Driver, as the loose cannon comedian, husband, and father is absolutely spectacular. He utilizes just about every tool he has in his arsenal – his tall frame, his long dark hair, his deep voice, his physicality – all to play a character full of rage, insecurity, and fear. It’s as though he took what he did in Marriage Story (2019) and amplified it tenfold. Often, Henry is not a likeable person – the way he sees Annette clearly shows how shallow he can be – but Driver makes us stick with him through the sheer force of his performance.
While the music is catchy and the performances were strong, there is a coldness about Annette that kept me at arm’s length. The absurdist way it was constructed was fascinating, but I don’t know if it was involving. I never felt engaged with the material like an active participant, but more as a scientist observing a test subject. It is most definitely beautiful looking. Caroline Campetier’s cinematography captures beautiful shots, particularly when things get more absurd. At one point, the set design and art direction are so noticeably synthetic that I felt like I was transported into the expressionism of a silent film. But none of that adds up to something substantial. The closing scenes attempt to knock us off our feet with its emotional power, but by then it’s too late. I walked away more perplexed than moved – maybe that’s the point. It’s a musical that doesn’t want to be a musical, it’s a romantic fantasy that doesn’t like romantic fantasies. Some might see this and think that it’s weird simply for weirdness’ sake.
Annette is a movie I admire more than I liked. I appreciate its vision and its willingness to push the limit of what a musical can or should do. It operates under its own rules and lets the audience decide if they want to keep up. While this may not have completely worked for me, there’s little doubt that this should be seen and discussed. I’m far more interested in an ambitious film that doesn’t reach its goals compared to one that has no ambition at all.