MA 15+, 139 minutes
In limited cinema release, and due to stream on Prime
Review by © Jane Freebury
Every ten years or so, Leos Carax delivers a movie that is darn impossible to ignore. Holy Motors in 2012 was weird and obtuse, a homage to cinema under threat from digital technologies. Who can forget the ride in the limo with a shape-shifting Denis Lavant? Or the scene in which the actor stalks a film set in a motion-capture suit?
Pola X with Carax’s late wife, Yekaterina Golubeva, was around a decade earlier. The film that made Carax really famous, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, arrived in 1991 with Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant as a pair of vagrants. Down and out on the streets of Paris, yet it was a world that was unfailingly beautiful.
For a director with a 40-year career, this French auteur has hardly been profligate with his talents. Six features aren’t much in anyone’s language and yet when his work appears it is striking for its fearless creative exuberance, aching romantic power and unique vision.
This musical romantic drama with Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver as the beautiful, doomed lovers, Ann Desfranoux and Henry McHenry, is all of the above. It won Carax the prize for best director at Cannes this year, and represents his first English language film.
The world of performers, where fame and private lives collide
From the first moments, the film’s key creatives are in frame. There’s Leos Carax at the mixing console while the pop-rock duo, Sparks, begin the opening number. Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks wrote the screenplay with Carax.
So may we start, the director asks. Mais oui is the answer. We hope it goes the way it’s supposed to go, someone murmurs. That’s it. Annette is set in the world of performers where the fame their celebrity attracts and their private lives collide.
Then cameras roll in one of the most fluent and enticing opening scenes I’ve seen, as Sparks’ song ‘So May We Start’ is taken up by the cast and crew, walking out of the studio into a Los Angeles night in a sweeping tracking shot. It so drew me in.
Carax has always expressed a love for cinema in his work, celebrating what the medium has to offer. Yet in Adam Driver as McHenry, he has an actor whose performance almost overwhelms the hyper-reality, the lustrous photography and the artificial sets, dominating the film in an extraordinary physical performance.
Cotillard has less to do as the opera soprano besides die on stage every night. It’s our loss that the actor’s character is so under-written, but the balance is redressed when little Annette eventually emerges to take her place.
Although McHenry is a stand-up comic, he is like a pugnacious boxer onstage, a hulking figure in a green robe. Green is the colour coded as his in the film’s luscious palette.
A shift to an even darker chapter in which Carax takes all sorts of risks with a wooden puppet-girl
As he stalks the stage as if searching for an invisible antagonist, adoring fans hang on every vulgar word. It shows how he can say and do anything and get away with it, which may remind you of current political populism. While there’s a strong element of gothic tragedy to Annette, it isn’t devoid of the occasional contemporary reference, as in Californian wildfires and Me Too.
The romance with Cotillard’s Ann, the embodiment of refinement, is a partnership of opposites. Their love song, ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, performed on a walk in the woods and while they make love, is a sunny climactic moment that is short-lived.
The mood quickly turns dark after the birth of their daughter, Annette, a strange child, a Pinocchio-like marionette with protruding ears like her father. As Ann’s international career ascends, Henry is left at home with their daughter, his career plateauing and audiences turning away.
After McHenry shows he is every bit as evil as a villain of Victorian melodrama, the narrative shifts from Ann’s demise to a new, even darker chapter in which Carax takes all sorts of risks with a wooden puppet-girl. Despite it all, the film still resonates powerfully and becomes strangely compelling.
Annette has the cautionary elements of children’s traditional fables and fairy tales, those that were troubling in their dark ambiguity. Audiences may be swept away, if they are willing to get on board and let it happen.