ANNETTE
(****)-VITO CARLI

"...far more and thought provoking than anything else I have seen in many months."

Anti-Musical Generates Sparks

(082721) Anyone who has followed my reviews (you can both raise your hands) knows that I am a big fan of weird movies or more specifically movies that have what Paul Schrader called “strangeness” or what he defined in the late, lamented Film Comment as “the type of originality we can never altogether assimilate.” Very few films possess this quality, but some film makers luxuriate in it. Specifically all the films of David Lynch, Lars Von Trier,  Maya Deren and Bruno Dumont, as well as Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien D’Andalou, Carlos Reygadas’ "Battle in Heaven", Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.

Carax’s new film, Annette also possesses a large amount of strangeness. It also falls generally in the category of the absurdist anti-musical along with such films as Dancer in the Dark, Sweeney Todd, Joan of Arc, and Holy Motors as well as Spike lee’s failed but daring Chi-Raq. All these films contain wall to wall music but violate either the plot, subject matter, or tone conventions of the traditional musical. Like the absurdist plays of Dario Fo (I once dreamed that he crashed his car into mine), they also all have scenes, images or plot developments that would be considered ridiculous, illogical, or nonsensical to most traditional film viewers.

These films can only work if the actors play it straight even when they are performing within the most ridiculous plot developments or environments. Audiences of Annette may be shocked for instance when a married couple sing in an important musical number (without laughing) while one performs oral sex on the other (This is all simulated of course).

Just the advent of a release of a new film by director, Leos Carax will be seen by film aficionados as a major event. He only made five feature films in the last 40 years, including the masterful Holy Motors, which is unlike anything I have ever seen, as well as Lovers on the Bridge and Pola X which were almost as great.

All the songs in his new film, Annette were written by the wacky prog glam duo Sparks. Despite the fact that they come from LA, they have rarely connected much with mass American audiences (They do have a devoted if miniscule cult following here and they are bigger in Europe). The film opens appropriately enough with the two Sparks brothers (Ron and Russell) marching out of the recording studio singing “And Now May We Start?". The duo was also the subject of the terrific documentary film the Sparks Brothers. Ron also briefly discusses their work on this film.

Basically, Annette re-imagines the basic plot of a rising celebrity who has a troubled marriage with a partner whose career is falling (
A Star is Born also follows this plot pattern) and then the film deviates drastically sharply from the formula. The twist here is that in a surreal stroke, the troubled couple has a doll like baby who resembles Chucky from Child’s Play who acts like a real baby but in no way resembles one. The whole situation reminds me a little of the birth of the monstrous baby in David Lynch’s Eraserhead.

The protagonist, Henry is masterfully played by Adam Driver in a ferociously engaging performance is a troubled and abusive alcoholic spouse who works as a stand-up comic/performance artist. Driver is uncommonly good in the film, and his performance basically holds the whole thing up. His role in the film has inspired some rapturous praise (as well as some nasty pans) and IndieWire’s Eric Kohn said that in the film Driver, was like a “deranged force of nature.”

The film shows Henry extensively on stage in dramatic pieces within the movie and we see him gradually losing his audiences. He performs a bizarre show called Ape of God, in which he does disturbing monologues while he moves around like a gorilla while clad in a boxing robe. At the end of some performances his wife’s character symbolically dies for the sins of the audience which corresponds to what happens to a “real” character in the film.

Henry’s story is some ways reminiscent of Andy Kaufman’s life. Like Kaufman, his character does not go for cheap laughs, but he likes to pull the rug out from the audience in his performances. Also, like Kaufman he likes to play the villain onstage and often pushes his audiences so far and becomes so unlikable that they inevitably turn against him. They reject him as completely as the followers of Tommy. At the end of some of the performances they might as well have sung, “We’re Not Gonna Take It!!”

Henry’s whole approach to the audience is also somewhat similar to Carax’s treatment of film viewers. Just when we start enjoying a scene from one of his films and we think we know what is going on, Carax often throws in something hideous, unexpected or absurd which rips us screaming out of our comfort zones.

As Henry destroys his career and his popularity declines, his wife, Ann Desfranoux (played by Marion Cotillard whose acting resume may equal actually Driver’s) makes all the right moves and becomes an almost universally adored opera singer/recording artist. Her husband is spiteful and jealous of his wife’s fame and becomes an increasingly out of control and abusive drunk.

It does not help that six women accuse Henry of sexual abuse, but surprisingly he is not immediately cancelled. This plot thread is soon dropped but the whole sequence can also be seen as one of Ann’s nightmares or hallucinations. But considering what else he does in the film it would not be surprising if he was guilty.

In an unexpected twist, his wooden doll daughter, Annette, also becomes a big star, and it seems like she can levitate as she sings (but this like the some of the rest of the film may be a hallucination seen by the protagonist) and this too all leads to terrible tragedy.

Simon Maxwell Helberg (Howard Wollowitz from The Big Bang Theory) is surprisingly effective playing a somewhat maternal babysitter who watches Annette and seems to care more for her than her supposed dad.

The last part of the film takes an even darker turn when it comes out that Ann had an affair before she was married, and Henry might not be Annette’s true father. After that things only get worse.

Traditional audience members or musical fans who go in expecting a by the numbers happy love story/musical will probably be highly disappointed or perhaps even revolted by the film’s large amount of sex and violence as well as how the film often dashes or goes against audience expectations or gives them the opposite of what they want to see.

Although it does not always work, I am sure I will remember and think about this film long after I have forgotten most of the year’s other films, and it is stronger, more vibrant, far more and thought provoking than anything else I have seen in many months.

Annette is a daring, preposterous, joyful, gleefully disturbing, irreverent, subversive, and stunningly original piece of cinematic art. At this point I almost think that Adam Driver, Leos Carax and Marion Cottilard can do no wrong.
 

Directed by:    Leos Carax
Written by:    Ron Mael, Russell Mael, and Leos Carax
Starring:    Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Released:    Limited theatrical release: 8/6/2021, on Amazon
 Prime on 8/20.2021
Length:    141 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for sexual content, including some nudity
 and for language
Available on:    Playing at selected theatres and available on
 Amazon Prime.

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

ANNETTE © 2021 CG Cinéma
Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.