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Tivoli Theatre Presents – After Hours Film Society – Annette
October 4 @ 7:30 pm
Annette Is a Wild Exhilarating Ride Through Male Self Destruction
Reviewed by Cassie Da Costa | Vanity Fair
A man mistrusts goodness so intensely that he systematically dismantles his very good life—at first as a bit, then as the real thing.
French director Leos Carax has made this film many times over, troubling over masculine failure in all its bombast and wretchedness. Annette, his latest, in theaters August 6 and available to stream on Amazon August 20, is the filmmaker’s first full-on musical and first film in English. Opinion amongst critics is fairly divided—my colleague Richard Lawson found it lacking substance, while the New York Times’ A.O. Scott and the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw were dazzled by its ambitious construction. But with Carax, first impressions can easily and unintentionally bely decades of craft. Unsurprisingly, the filmmaker—who, like Fellini before him, has drawn inspiration from the meta-verse of moviemaking and celebrity—started out as a critic. Paying closer attention to his latest hulking, brooding, laughing film might compel you to watch it not just once, but again and again.
With a screenplay and songs by Ron and Russell Mael—a.k.a. the rock duo Sparks—Annette stars a handsomely freakish Adam Driver as Henry McHenry motorcycle-driving shock-comedian in LA who has begun dating an earnest, caring, and greatly beloved opera singer, Ann Defrasnoux, played by a shrewdly cast Marion Cotillard. They fall in love—their song, “We Love Each Other So Much” consists exclusively of a chorus—and have a baby, Annette.
This baby, embodied by a detailed to-scale puppet, exists, notably, at the margins of Henry and Ann’s own deep love of each other and dysfunction. Even after she arrives, you begin to wonder why you are watching a film called Annette—a film dedicated to Carax’s own teenage daughter, Nastya, who appears on screen with her father in the movie’s opening moments. Nastya stands over Carax, who’s sitting at the mixing board in the recording studio where Sparks is laying down the film’s first song, “So May We Start.” What does the presence, and silence, of this child indicate to us?
Annette is remarkable for its formal intensity—how every image and song is not merely reflective of, but tangled up in the ideas they give life to. Driver looms over Cotillard with his large hands splayed out like Nosferatu’s. How has this horrid man scored such a lovely woman, Henry asks himself? Like Ann, though, cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s camera sees his beauty and his promise. (Driver himself, of course, is a jolie-laide heartthrob, and recently caused a social media fervor by appearing as a sexy centaur in a Burberry ad.) Like Carax’s last ambitious project, Holy Motors—also shot by Champetier and starring Carax-regular Denis Lavant as an alternately tender and monstrous actor—Annette is interested in how both artifice and authenticity save and terrorize us. Specifically, Sparks’ screenplay explores how a man’s own confusion about what is real and what he’s made up can quickly turn from generative artistry to relentless abuse.
In Carax’s fourth feature, the 1999 film POLA X, the late actor Guillaume Depardieu (son of Gérard Depardieu), playing a moody novelist, roars off from his mother’s house in a motorcycle. He has a happy enough life set up for him—his sweet fiancé Lucie (Delphine Cuillot) patiently waits in bed for his arrival. Yet his own mistrust and ambition pulls him towards his vagabond half-sister Isabelle (Carax’s late wife Yekaterina Golubeva), and a haphazardly compartmentalized double life punctuated by artistic fragility. Chaos ensues. The film was seen as especially provocative, with its thematic incest and unsimulated sex, and has often been considered part of what critic James Quandt coined the New French Extremity—think Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, and Marina de Van’s self-mutilation romance-horror flick In My Skin. But in fact, the film is committedly sincere; it lingers on dashed hopes and destructive romance rather than shock or titillation.
Annette, while certainly containing moments of unflinching eroticism, is not quite as out there as POLA X—but already, the movie’s fallen victim to a similar mix of American cynicism, Puritanism, and moral ambivalence. The film’s eccentricities aren’t pretentious, as some critics, like the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, have claimed; they are genuine expressions of Annette’s ideas about masculinity, abuse, exploitation, and obligation. Driver is unforgettable as an imposing joker who misapplies his own power. (Academy voters probably won’t care, but Joaquin Phoenix should lend him his Oscar.) Sparks’ Brechtian speech-song, as Carlos Valladares aptly observes in his review for Frieze, makes Henry’s growing monstrosity—particularly in the way he views sex, women, and success—difficult to ignore.
Puppet Annette, designed by Estelle Charlier and Romuald Collinet, is a kind of lifestyle prop to her parents, who love her but can’t figure out how to put her first. They almost see her as the paparazzi eventually do—a plot point, an accessory, an adorable child with two terribly famous parents in Hollywood. But even more-so than that obvious metaphor, as a puppet, Annette’s eyes are vacant—there are barriers to her receiving the audience’s empathy. You spend almost the entire film thinking about the adults around her, how they must suffer, how you wish their lives could go. Carax then careens in with a final scene that brilliantly upends the puppetry at the core of Henry and Ann’s lives and turns the audience back on itself, challenging the film to take on its most unbearable questions in song and image: What is the child trying to tell us?
It’s hard to resist the urge to explain Annette to the curious or confused with an admittedly dismissive refrain: “film is a visual medium!” Carax has taken the Sparks’ premise and exploded it onto screen with an energetic yet finely detailed visual score. The film is as tender and wrenching as it is bizarre and humorous, enthusiastically engaging in cinematic theatricality through Henry’s comedy sets, Ann’s operas, Annette’s own performances, and the intense melodrama of the family’s home life. Carax’s Los Angeles is both a highway-dotted expanse and a creepy, dense forest—with Champetier and Happy as Lazzaro editor Nelly Quettier, he creates a New American chiaroscuro. You’re either exposed on the open road or hiding away in a shadowy bungalow. Quite right for two bright stars who fail, at last, to upstage their daughter
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