The 74th international film festival was held in Cannes. The opening film was “Annette“, a Leos Carax musical to the music of Sparks starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Mozenra critic Jan Hazkevich saw the premiere at Cannes and talks about this unbearable love film.
I walked out of the screening of “Annette” with my mind and senses in a state of flux. I think I’ve seen the strongest film I’ve seen in a long time. Pictures like this, which are extremely rare, leave scars and are not forgotten. That said, I’m aware of how many people will be annoyed by “Annette”, not moved by it, disgusted by it, and see it as a creative failure. This film is the kind of film that divides.
The first and simplest reason is that “Annette” radically subverts expectations, especially those fuelled by the secretly preserved plot and the very fact that we are facing the first film in nine years by Leos Carax, a director with a reputation as a genius and a “damned poet”. What did you expect? “Annette” opens the Festival de Cannes with glamour, romance and beauty, peppered with irony and the excellent music of tried and tested hitmakers, the duo Sparks. After Carax’s previous work, “Holy Motors Corporation”, the surrealist dreamscapes. Of course, the evocative benefit performances by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, who played a couple in love. And some kind of phantasmagoria-surprise about their unusual, as the synopsis says, daughter. It’s all there in “Annette”. And none of it is the main thing here.
Driver’s character is provocative stand-up comedian Henry McHenry by profession, his lover Anne (Cotillard) is a celebrated opera singer. The film drifts slowly through a storm of music from risqué, provocative but still funny stand-up to the tragedy that is more operatic than musical.
For half a century, however, Sparks, who created the soundtrack, have only played the frivolity behind which there is always melancholy and sometimes genuine drama, albeit presented delicately, without pathetic. Who says their pop opera has to be a light-hearted joke? It is no accident that the film quotes eerie tragedies of operatic tradition – from Verdi’s “Othello” to Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”. Sparks aim high. After all, they’ve outlined collaborations with the greats before – Jacques Tati, Tim Burton, Francis Ford Coppola, Tsui Hark, and have written a concept record about Ingmar Bergman. And the band have had their eye on Carax for a long time: he sings along to them on the album “Hippopotamus” in a song with the telling title “When youʼre a French director“.
Sparks’ authorship has not prevented Carax from making a painfully personal film. Has he ever made another, though? Starring his favourite women (Mireille Perrier, Juliette Binoche, Catherine Golubeva) and giving the protagonists their names – Alex and Oscar, of which Leos Carax is an anagrammed pseudonym – the director turned each of his works into a scaldingly intimate diary. “Annette”, dedicated to his daughter Nastya, who starred here in her role, is no exception (“Holy Motors Corporation” was dedicated to Golubeva, who tragically died shortly before that). Hence the central plot, about a father left with his daughter after her mother’s untimely departure. Although it is difficult, if not terrifying, to believe that Henry, too, is the director’s self-portrait.
“Annette” is a burlesque, a nightmare, a fantasy. The film, highly auto reflective, constantly reminds the viewer of this. But the conventionality of cinematic language does not impede the author’s frankness; it even enhances it. And it’s not just the unexpected erotic scenes during which Driver and Cotillard never stop singing a duet. For all its bewildering scenism and romanticism – there’s even a tribute to Edgar Allan Poe in the credits – this is an ultramodern tale of how love turns violent. And the artistic provocation that creative people are so fond of bragging about turns to crime. There’s also a musical number in Annette, which illustrates the #MeToo movement with a unique passion. That said, the style itself remains emphatically conventional and even old-fashioned, referring back to the charmingly awkward horror films and melodramas of silent and early sound cinema.
All the simmering contradictions, expressed almost exclusively in melodies and songs (they noticeably outnumber the spoken dialogue), find supreme expression in the unusual image of Annette herself. A spoiler will have to be resorted to here. If you want to experience Carax’s most original find without prompting, it’s best not to read any further.
The role of Annette is played by a puppet – a wooden one, it seems. It’s not the computerised, cute creature that modern mainstream cinema audiences are used to, but a rather creepy-looking creature with wispy hair and hinged limbs as if she were from a ragmonger’s shop. She reminds one of Pinocchio from illustrations of a century ago or Alice from a film by Czech puppeteer Jan Švankmajer, and sometimes of Chucky or Annabel from Hollywood horror films. In this case, her parents, played as-is by excellent actors, treat her as a living and adored child, as if not noticing the differences between Annette and other children. This makes it all the more disturbing.
No, Carax has not gone mad, nor has his ingenuity and taste been betrayed. The heartbreaking final scene clearly explains the use of a doll in a story of this nature: it is the best way to show the false, invented love that parents often feel for children (and men and women for each other), completely unaware of them and only using them, supposedly for their good. This thesis itself is so overblown and self-destructive that it is almost unbearable to look at the proof of it.
Beginning with a playfulness in the vein of “Moulin Rouge” or “La La Land” and developing the plot in the vein of another prominent rock opera about a miracle child, “Tommy”, in the finale the authors come to a tone of hopelessness more reminiscent of “Sweeney Todd” or “Dancing in the Dark”. “Annette” is a grandiose picture, but it is also a “feel bad movie”: hardly many people expected such a thing from the English-language debut of a European star director with first-rate actors in the lead roles.
Together with the self-loathing Henry, in which Adam Driver – also co-producer of the film – has found his most complex, dual, genuinely frightening role, one looks into the abyss (his last song is called that, “Sympathy for the abyss”) and can no longer turn away. You can only breathe a sigh of relief in the final seconds of the film when, in the final credits, all the participants in the show parade through the audience in a procession of colourful balloons and thank them for their attention, thereby reminding them that what they see is no more than a story invented for their entertainment.