Imperfect cadence: ‘Annette’

By Luke Goodsell

The stupid and the sublime commune in Leos Carax’s woozy pop opera

Adam Driver stars in Annette

“Cinema has to reinvent itself, because it loses power,” the French writer, director and one-time enfant terrible Leos Carax told The New York Times recently. “Today, kids see explosions and mutants, and it’s not magical anymore.” It’s not a complaint one could level at the filmmaker’s slender but thrilling body of work. Across five decades and six features, each one a rara avis of loopy poetry, he has made magic of both explosions (fireworks crackling over delirious, punch-drunk drifters) and mutants (hilariously gnarled grotesques terrorising Paris), along with star-crossed lovers, chimp families, chatterbox limousines and – perhaps most improbably – late ’80s David Bowie. His films are fantasias of beauty and ugliness, dreams and desperation, of music, movement and a wonderfully uncool belief in the romantic power of cinema, and of love, even if the latter is often delusional and frequently doomed. “Blow everything sky high!” shouted Juliette Binoche in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), gun raised to the stars. “And keep one for the future!”

Carax’s gothic pop opera Annette, which opened at Cannes in July and arrives on digital platforms this week, reveals just how strange that future might turn out to be – at least for the unreformed romantic. Set between Los Angeles and a realm of dreams, it stars Adam Driver as Henry McHenry, an obnoxious, poodle-haired comic whose swoony tryst with the ethereal soprano Ann Defrasnoux, played by Marion Cotillard, gets even weirder upon the arrival of their baby daughter, Annette – a spooky-cute infant with a peculiar vocal gift and a distinctly unreal look, like a winsome Rankin-Bass marionette mixed with Chucky’s less-murderous sister.

It’s also a full-blown musical: the actors deliver nearly every line of dialogue in a style that ranges from the sing-songy cadence of Jacques Demy musicals to the more elaborate arrangements of an oddball Stephen Sondheim, performing a score written and produced by art-rock siblings Ron and Russell Mael, better known as Sparks. The now-septuagenarian musicians – cult faves since their breakout in the mid-’70s – are having a moment thanks to Edgar Wright’s recent career-spanning documentary, and their baroque, often funny pop proves a perfect fit for Carax’s particular sensibilities. The film’s opening number “So May We Start”, co-written with the director and performed alongside the key cast, plays as giddy meta-invitation: “We’ve fashioned a world, a world built just for you.”

Like so many of his characters who seem to be in a race against mortality, Carax’s camera wheels and whirls around the City of Angels, which, despite being one of the most filmed locations on the planet, once again reveals its eerie, mottled splendour to an outsider’s eye, a netherworld of nocturnal boulevards and lost highways. (There’s something of Lynch to the film’s phantom dissolves, deftly summoned by Carax’s long-time editor Nelly Quettier.) It’s romantic but ominous – the perfect landscape in which a nihilistic stand-up and an angelic diva might collide. Driver, who teased his Sondheim chops in Marriage Story (2019), reroutes Annette’s show tunes via the brooding, juvenile angst of Star Wars’ Kylo Ren, with his morbidly funny, Andy Kaufman-esque comedy act curdling into hostility, commensurate with the empty world of celebrity he inhabits. Cotillard, who alternates vocals with soprano Catherine Trottmann, serves as his spiritual foil: Ann seems to glide through opera halls and into enchanted forests, inevitably en route to her demise. As the movie puts it: he’s always killing; she’s always dying.

In its dance of fated lovers, its formal expressiveness and go-for-broke delirium, Annette often suggests a bozo version of The Red Shoes (1948), an admitted reach that’s less an exact analogy to Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece than it is an impression, a feeling. “Is there nothing sacred to you?” Ann screams at Henry at one point, and it’s almost as though Carax – whose last film, the shape-shifting oddity Holy Motors (2012), coursed with the anxiety of cinema in the digital age – is shouting into the modern void right along with her. For Carax, the cinema is his country, his own sacred space, and Annette is his divine plea – an ecstatic lunge in an era of dreary, corporate-mandated superhero fantasies and interchangeable streaming content.

In other words, movies are back, baby: at least in the Caraxian sense, a world where the stupid (daddy drama, over-cranked sex scenes) and the sublime (puppets soaring across computer-generated cityscapes) commune in woozy derangement. A child of Méliès and Cocteau as much as Godard, Carax has long made films that seemed to share a common dreamscape, his characters braided together almost telepathically, nested within each other’s fantasy. Sure enough in Annette, Henry’s forest-green stage gown evokes the costume of Denis Lavant’s bedraggled monster in Holy Motors, while the latter’s shock of flame-orange hair returns in Henry and Ann’s offspring; the film’s motorcycles seem to race down the same astral highway that once spirited a proleptic Catherine Deneuve in Pola X (1999). And, of course, there’s the music: a mixtape of pop’s off-kilter subconscious in which a chance radio encounter can spark an ode to abandon (Lavant’s much-imitated “Modern Love” dance in 1986’s Mauvais Sang), a rumbling Scott Walker epic spells encroaching doom, or an unlikely chanteuse played by Kylie Minogue might break an actor’s heart.

Yet for a filmmaker so often out of time and out of joint, there’s also something decidedly contemporary to Carax’s world in Annette: a reckoning with – or at least a rueful glance at – the myth of the tortured artist. Carax has long poked at the image of his creative souls, undercutting their ostensible whimsy with bursts of selfishness and cruelty, but the romantic energy of those earlier films has given way to a growing sense of regret, and maybe even accountability, here. The birth of the baby Annette – whose doll parts glow with the carmine heart-light of E.T. – twists this tale of burning lovers towards a dark fable worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, the songs flipping from a tone of storybook romance to bitter comeuppance. An increasingly malefic Henry – who, with his mop of jet-black hair and silent-movie-star moustache, starts to resemble a synthesis of the Mael brothers themselves – makes jokes about murdering the more successful Ann and bangs on about his “sympathy for the abyss”, while she has a vivid #MeToo nightmare about her “bad boy” husband and accusations of his abuse. (In one scene, Driver looms behind Cotillard, his considerable, outstretched hands looking for all the world like the claws of Nosferatu’s Max Schreck.) Not all of it works: Sparks’ songs can’t sustain the occasional draggy passage, while a duelling parentage side plot, featuring Anne’s concert accompanist (Simon Helberg), cleaves too neatly to the kind of narrative that Carax would traditionally avoid.

But its highs are so very high, and just as strange as any in Carax’s filmography, which means they run cartwheels (set to fireworks) around so much in recent cinema. The movie’s most unexpected, and weirdly transcendent, sequences fulfil the “out of this world” prophecy delivered at Annette’s birth, as the titular tot becomes a pint-sized pop star – the kind of supernatural messiah who might be spirited into a stadium on the wings of drones and set down upon a high-tech replica of the dark crystal. (Lady Gaga could never.) And what could be more romantic than Annette’s Pinocchio-like denouement, which reframes the future as a brutal kiss-off from the incoming generation, waving goodbye to the adults who’ve made a mess of everything – and denying the tortured artist his catharsis? (The film is touchingly dedicated to Carax’s teenage daughter Nastaya, who also appears in the introductory scene.) Wizened beyond her fears, the newly flesh-and-blood kid – played with a marvelous, spiky disdain by five-year-old newcomer Devyn McDowell – reminded me of the little girl’s very funny, if slightly sinister voiceover at the beginning of Carax’s very first feature, Boy Meets Girl, made all the way back in 1984: “Here we are still alone … soon I will be old and it will at last be over.” They grow up so fast.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.


Adam Driver stars in Annette

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