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DIRECTED BY: Leos Carax
FEATURING: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
PLOT: After the birth of his daughter, Henry McHenry’s life slides irreversibly into the abyss.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: No, not because the daughter is a puppet. That’s just a convenient, albeit perfect, metaphor for Annette, the character. Annette the film is an example of distillation in the extreme. It condenses opera’s operaticness to its essence, stand-up comedy to its essence, and so on. Musicals, as a genre, have a lot of leeway that often keep us from considering them as “weird.” However, here the director and screenwriters kick the substance of style as substance into overdrive, making something that is as emotionally affecting as its trappings are meaningfully superfluous.
COMMENTS: “So, may we start?” asks the director in front of a studio mixing board. Cue the screen-/score-writers, Ron and Russ Mael. As the proem is sung, the leads enter the scene. The cast and crew proceed into the streets singing, continuing the opening number before kneeling in front of the camera and then dispersing into the actual action of the story. It’s a spectacle of choreographed artifice, laying bare the central conceit of Annette: this is a performance. There are plenty of musicals about musicals. There are meta-movies. Leos Carax is capturing both in this glorious two-for-one deal, which first shows you all its components before proceeding to confound you anyway. And while this is certainly a Carax picture, he is like the celebrity chef working from the ingredients gathered by the Maels (who record as “Sparks”) over their decades-long career.
The story is so Hollywood that it almost hurts. Stand-up comic and big-time celebrity Henry McHenry falls in love with Ann Defrasnoux, a beloved opera singer; they marry, have a child (more on that later), and tragedy ensues. Why? Because this is opera; this is opera so deep down to its pathos-impacted core that its plot arc is as predictable as it is fundamental. The tragedy of Annette is deeper than it is “large”; no gods, no epic events, just emotional deterioration speeding into spiritual collapse. So it’s Hollywood, and it’s opera. And it’s always playing footsie with the absurd. Annette‘s hook, at least its main one, is that the titular character is a wooden puppet who sings by the light of the moon.
Under normal circumstances, this is where the “uncanny valley” remarks would go. But seeing as this story is neck-deep in the very essence (bordering on apotheosis) of every other element—songs, performance, melodrama, lighting—Annette being a marionette makes perfect sense. As a character, she is controlled not by herself, but by her parents. This ding an sich-ing (she is literally a puppet) is in keeping with what Carax and the Maels are up to. Is there a “true love” duet-montage? You bet there is. And virtually all the lyrics are the words, “We’re so in love”. When Annette becomes a star, there’s a requisite travel montage which echoes the lyrically scant duet from before, with the lines “We’re traveling ’round the world” sung while they… travel around the world. At times the filmmakers beg forgiveness for having to interrupt their emotional archetypes with plot—an important character apologizes a number of times during his expositionary monologue for breaking his speech to perform his job of conducting an orchestra.
This makes him a perfect stand-in for the creators. And his ultimate fate also suggests the perils of the creative process, as characters take on a life of their own and throw a spanner in the works. There have been, and will be, superior movie musicals, but few others revel so fundamentally in the core of performance as a genre. This is a story that hides neither its nature nor its ambitions. And the skill level of its authors—writers, directors, and players—leaves the audience completely in their control.
An Amazon Studios production, Annette debuted for free on Amazon Prime after its 2021 Cannes premiere and brief theatrical run.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a thoroughly banana cakes musical romance… If you sometimes go to the movies to feel unsettled, perplexed, and amused—not to mention get a peek at an often-shirtless and always-brooding Adam Driver—Annette might be the weird one you’ve been waiting for.”–Dana Stevens, Slate (contemporaneous)