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
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
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.