By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 8/22/12 – Currently in a few theatres in Los Angeles and screening online through Amazon Prime is Leos Carax’s latest film Annette (2021), a French-German co-production that opened this year’s Cannes Festival. Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard brim with nervous energy in this bizarre semi-operatic musical collaboration between Leos Carax and the Sparks brothers – Ron and Russell Mael. With Leos Carax, we have come to expect the unusual and here in Annette we get a barking mad tragedy sung like a rock opera set to music from a former 70s Top of the Pops group, Sparks. Ron and Russell make their first appearance here in a recording studio with Carax behind the glass. Years ago, Carax mused, “I hope to make a film one day that will be music. I wanted a life in music.” Annette is it. “So may we start?” demands the director.
And start they do, with the Maels, Carax, his stars Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver and the entire cast singing as they march out of the studio and into the streets of downtown Los Angeles, ready to begin the entirely bizarre action. Theatre and acting deal in made-up worlds, with people pretending to be other people – but theatre is also the place where the truth can be told. Maybe it’s the only place. The truth isn’t pretty. The truth hurts. The truth is sometimes silly and unfair. Real life often rejects this. Theatre accepts it. So does Carax.
As Henry McHenry, Adam Driver is an aggressive comedian-ranter with a controversial reputation who is appearing for a stand-up gig as “The Ape of God” at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. In his show, he addresses his audience with the question: “Henry, why did you become a comedian?” His reply: “I will tell you why. To disarm people, to make them laugh. It’s the only way to tell the truth without getting killed.” Meanwhile Marion Cotillard as Ann Defrasnoux. the opera soprano, is performing at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, where she is a huge success on stage in operatic roles where she is always dying at the end and then bowing to an enraptured audience. As Henry says to her, “You die so magnificently. Honey, you’re always dying.” The two voices rise in song, with the signature duet written by Sparks – “We love each other so much.”
Driver as Henry shuffles around in the wings of the Orpheum like Jake LaMotta in a boxer’s robe, smoking a cigarette, and then coming on to discard the robe revealing a gym-built body. He will bait the audiences with his hostile riffs and singing interludes (for which he has a back-up chorus), occasionally staging horribly tasteless Bataclan-style fake gun attacks on himself just to shock everyone. Of course, fictional comedians doing their act in films have the same problems as fictional artists showing their fictional paintings. Is this supposed to be good, or not? Well, Henry’s act is clearly not intended to be conventionally funny.
Henry is in a relationship and in love with his polar opposite, Ann, a charismatic and exquisitely beautiful opera singer played by Cotillard, whom Carax imagines splendidly alone on colossal, quasi-expressionistic sets. She comes from the highest of high culture, her reputation jealously protected by the opera house’s conductor (played by Simon Helberg, the self-effacing accompanist from Florence Foster Jenkins) who is not-so-secretly in love with her himself. After the performance, Ann’s bad-boy boyfriend will show up outside the opera house on his motorbike and whisk her off to their beautiful home in the hills to make love. Soon, Ann is pregnant, but she is troubled by rumors (or dreams) that aggressively macho Henry is about to be hit with a #MeToo case, where six women accuse him of inappropriate advances. Is this really happening or is it a hallucination in the mind of Ann?
Their relationship ends with tragedy – and there is something very disquieting about their baby girl, Annette, who looks like a wooden marionette and can sing with her mother’s amazing, grownup voice. Through Baby Annette, Ann’s voice will be the ghost that haunts Henry. At this point, we get reintroduced to Ann’s ex-boyfriend, her former accompanist and now a full-fledged orchestra conductor who reveals to us his own love for Ann. So, the increasingly bleary, mad and humiliated Henry devotes himself to being Annette’s full-time caretaker and career-manager, working in conjunction with the Conductor to make Baby Annette into a musical star. Any hopes we might have had that this could somehow end well are soon dashed.
The bad-dream quality of Annette comes very particularly from the “theatre audience” scenes that Carax repeatedly stages for Henry, Ann and Annette: huge, mysterious banks of faces who are transported with passion or skeptical or mutinous. Are they real? Are they a dream? There is something Buñuelian about their massed presence. Everything in Annette seems artificial and that is intentional on the part of Carax. Of course, what is most impressive are the impassioned bold performances by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Driver seems like a giant of a man, too big and clumsy for his own good. Yet it is love that sets Henry free, until he realizes that it boxes him in. There is always a self-destructive streak in Carax’s fictional worlds, especially when it comes to love. As Henry unravels in the second half of the film, we realize the love is not necessarily redemptive. The final scene of the film will leave us to consider what happens when a child realizes that there is difference between exploitation and love – a theme that often arises in the world of theatre, film, television, and music. The final scene of the film will leave us to consider what happens when Henry is told by his own child that “you have no one to love.” Henry never understood the difference between exploitation and love – a subject that often arises in the world of theatre, film, television, and music. In the end, he will turn his face to the wall and tell us to “Stop looking.” Filmed largely in Los Angeles, this is a Hollywood story told by a French director with a most uncanny and distinctive view of human nature.