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Annette
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Hello Young Lovers"
5 stars

If you took the typically Hollywood caricature of an auteur from Europe—a cartoonish creature wrapped up in a legend of their own making consisting of grand artistic pronouncements and a singularly bizarre cinematic “vision”—and brought it to life, it would greatly resemble the alternately acclaimed and notorious French filmmaker Leos Carax. Although not the most prolific of filmmakers—he has been working since 1980 but has only done six feature films to date—his films are so overstuffed with images and ideas throughout that both he and his audience pretty much need the regular long breaks between projects in order to recover and recharge. With his very first film, “Boy Meets Girl” (1984), he combined the emotional exuberance and excitement of a new filmmaker putting everything they have into their first (and possibly only) shot behind the camera with the kind of formal beauty and audacity of a veteran working at the peak of their creative powers. He has managed to keep that up over his followup projects—“Mauvais Sang” (1986), “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” (1992), “Pola X” (1999) and “Holy Motors” (2012)—and while viewers tend to split evenly between those who adore his work and those who find it all to be crazily pretentious nonsense, both groups know that when they go to see one of his movies, they are going to be getting a genuine experience that they will not be shaking anytime soon.

That is certainly the case with “Annette,” his latest effort, which arrives here a few weeks after making its long-delayed world premiere debut as the Opening Night film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (where Carax would go on to win the Best Director prize). At first glance, some auteurists may find themselves thinking that, at long last, Carax has finally elected to go mainstream. After all, this is his first film in English, the cast is top-lined by two bona-fide movie stars in Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and the newly ascendant Ron and Russell Mael—you know them better as Sparks, the cult musical duo who finally broke through into the mainstream this summer with Edgar Wright’s acclaimed documentary on their legacy—have collaborated with Carax on both the screenplay and the song score that makes up the majority of the narrative. (Oh yeah—the film is also a full-out musical to boot, albeit one that leans closer to such grim examples of the usually heedless form as “Pennies from Heaven” (1981) and “Dancer in the Dark” (2000).) Believe me, there are any number of words that could be employed to describe “Annette”—ones like “masterpiece,” “finest film of the year to date” and “Carax’s greatest work since “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” immediately spring to my mind—but I can assure you that “mainstream” is one that would be pretty far down the list, no matter where you land on it otherwise.


While I will be as circumspect regarding certain plot details in “Annette” in order to protect the numerous surprises on hand, those especially sensitive to spoilers might want to put this part aside as I will have to mention a couple of things you might not want to know about before going in. Set in Los Angeles and mostly sung-through, the film charts the relationship between Henry McHenry (Driver), an increasingly popular standup comic who bills himself as “The Ape of God” and psyches himself a la Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull” before hitting the stage to deliver performances unlike any standup act you have ever seen. (Chris Rock and Bill Barr are both thanked in the credits.) Henry has just entered into a high-profile romantic relationship with Ann (Cotillard), an equally famous opera performer that appears to be a match made in tabloid heaven.

After a whirlwind romance, they marry and before long, Ann gives birth to a daughter named Annette and yes, Annette is played by an elaborate puppet that looks like a slightly kinder and gentler Chucky. For a little bit, all seems well but the eternally dissatisfied Henry wants more and when Ann’s stardom begins to vastly eclipse his own—only in a Leos Carax film would an opera singer be the greater cultural influence than a comedian—he turns to drinking and self-loathing, eventually all but torching his career one night when he goes on stage and delivers a long monologue about killing his wife that is so intense that no one in the audience can tell if he is joking or not. Despite all of this, Ann still loves Henry and the three eventually set off on their yacht in the hopes of patching things up that eventually runs into a massive storm that culminates in both a tragedy and a miracle, though Henry might question which is which. I will say no more except to state that there is a lot of music, plenty of tragedy and a few shocking revelations that eventually culminate in a final scene that is as devastating a sequence as anything Carax has ever done.

The closest thing to a satisfactory point of comparison to “Annette” would probably be those off-the-wall films that Ken Russell was able to get produced in the Seventies like “Tommy” (1975) and “Lisztomania” (1976) in which he was able to allow his undeniably fervid imagination to run wild in ways that still seem startling even today. Even then, that would be an imperfect comparison because while those films were indeed wild, they lacked the undeniable emotional underpinnings that give “Annette” its heart and soul—you didn’t exactly care what happened to the characters in Russell’s films, which is not the case here. Sure, the notion of a sung-through rock opera involving at most four characters {Simon Helberg also appears as Ann’s accompanist) with one of them being represented throughout by a marionette sounds ludicrous—the kind of crackpot idea that John Cusack’s character in “Being John Malkovich” might have pitched to anyone unlucky enough to be within earshot—but it all works with an almost shocking degree of effectiveness. The songs are pretty strong throughout (get to the theater on time as the funniest of the bunch is the opening overture) and Driver and Cotillard deliver them with the necessary degree of gusto and emotion to make the musical conceit truly work. The two also bring the right amount of intensity to the dramatic aspects of their performances so that even when the plot threatens to devolve into absolute foaming-at-the-mouth madness, they manage to keep things as real and grounded as possible.

On his end, Carax blends the realistic and the fanciful in ways that rival even his similar efforts in “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf”—there are moments in which he doesn’t even attempt to disguise the artifice of the filmmaking process but the emotions that he is presenting are so overwhelming that they end up dominating the proceedings. Even the concept of the puppet child proves to be more than just a weirdo joke or perhaps a concession to avoid the possibility of an actual child visibly aging through the process of a potentially elongated shooting schedule—instead, the puppet iteration of Annette ends up serving as a striking metaphor for how Henry views the child, as little more than a thing that he sees first as a burden and later as a cash cow, that pays off to astonishing effect during the aforementioned climactic scene. As has been the case throughout Carax’s career, he lets his stylistic gambits enhance rather than subsume the rest of the film and as a result, even those who more or less know what they are in for will find themselves surprised at how much it gets under the skin and even those who end up dismissing it may discover that it has still managed to get under their skin in unexpected ways.

I am perfectly aware that even among the art house crowd that is likely to make up the largest segment of the film’s American audience (although its placement on Amazon’s streaming service in a couple of weeks should hopefully inspire a wider sampling), “Annette” is likely to be as polarizing as virtually all of Carax’s previous efforts. I am also fully aware of the fact that the likelihood that gumdrops like “Free Guy” or “The Jungle Cruise” will almost certainly pull in more money, at least in America, in their respective first Mondays in release than “Annette” will muster in its entire theatrical run. Hell, I think it is an absolute work of genius and I know plenty of people that I would not dream of recommending it to because I know that its sheer audaciousness is the kind that they will not respond to very well. All I can say is that if anything that I have said about the film has sparked your curiosity in any way, you owe it to yourself to see it. If you have the chance to see it on the big screen, where it well and properly belongs, so much the better.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=34743&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/05/21 12:21:23
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USA
  06-Aug-2021 (R)

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