The first voice in Leos Carax’s Annette belongs to the director himself, who introduces the film with a comically pretentious bit of emceeing that demands the audience’s respectful silence for what is about to unfold. “Breathing will not be tolerated,” he says in a mockery of the fussy house rules of theaters like the Alamo, but his commanding tone is also the opening salvo of male authoritarianism and artistic ego in a film that sharply delineates the attitudes of its entertainer couple, stand-up comedian Henry (Adam Driver) and opera soprano Ann (Marion Cotillard). Barring an opening song that introduces cast and crew, we meet the former as he prepares for one of his stand-up sets, a figure in a boxing robe who practices in front of a mirror as if he had fused the pugilist and nightclub sides of Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta into a simultaneous action. After a performance in which he ambles around the stage in full Lenny Bruce “truth teller” mode, Henry meets Ann after one of her own shows and boasts of his audience “I destroyed them.” Ann, taking an opposite tack, says “I saved them” about hers.

The emotional discrepancy between the couple is, for a time, smoothed over by their mutual infatuation, which culminates in the two having a child, Annette, who emerges from the womb as a Pinocchio-esque wooden puppet complete with a glowing chest. Just as things seem to be in a state of pure bliss, allegations emerge concerning Henry’s anger issues with women, adding a an even darker undercurrent to his ominous surliness.

Carax tracks the rise and turbulence of this couple via the musical format, employing songs written by the cult art-pop band Sparks and embellishing their loopy half-banal, half-elaborate arrangements with his own wild style, as original as it is informed by the whole of cinema history. The film’s early segments are florid and romantic, framing the couple’s countryside home in Impressionistic terms with the pair walking and singing among lightly wooded meadows that look as much like the French fields Renoir and others painted as rural California, or Ann swimming among floating weeds. Green suffuses the frame, from clothes to color filters to the glow of his and Ann’s pool, as if they’d decided to outdo Jay Gatsby and simply buy their own green light.

But it’s when a melodramatic twist fully plunges the film into its operatic abandon that Annette truly becomes sublime. It’s fitting that Carax should finally make a full musical, given that the most showstopping moments of his previous movies (Denis Lavant sprint-dancing to Bowie in Mauvais Sang, the Kyle Minogue sequence of Holy Motors) have effectively been mini-musicals. Carax builds the movie around Sparks’ odd cadences, drifting between blunt expressions of subtext through song and dance and subtler visual gestures that often display a dexterous grasp of film history. After a hellacious storm that rocks the characters as they sail on a yacht, an eerie calm reveals a full moon that pulses like a similarly poetic shot from Murnau’s Sunrise. Later scenes echo earlier ones like refrains, as when Henry’s early, rapturously received stand-up is contrasted with another scene in which the audience now turns against him, and Carax shifts the visual grammar from stressing Henry’s punchy aggression to a claustrophobic sense of the stage closing in on him.

After the seismic upheaval that marks the film’s second half, Annette gradually brings the dark undercurrent running through the story into the foreground, using Driver’s caustic, self-loathing performance to center an extended critique of chauvinism and male possessiveness in the arts. Driver completely overshadows Cotillard in a way that deliberately stresses the imbalance in Henry and Ann’s relationship, though Cotillard shifts Ann’s initially beatific image into a woman more jilted and vengeful as the film wears on. Even as Ann fades into the background, she hangs over the proceedings as Annette comes more to the foreground, her daughter’s increasingly supernatural nature becoming a conduit for her mother’s reckoning with her husband. Many Carax films resolve their explosive energy into harsh comedowns, but Annette’s denouement is so brutal it resembles less the tragic romances of Mauvais Sang or The Lovers on the Bridge than the annihilating finale of Pola X. That the final minutes of the film are its quietest only makes its moral summary that much more damning in its purgatorial assessment of the bed that Henry has made for himself at the expense of the family he did, at one time, truly love.

This mash-up of the arty, beautiful minds of Leos Carax and Sparks is as bewildering as it is beautiful.
85 %
Absurd and Gripping
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