You can like or hate Annette, the latest feature film from Leos Carax, you can judge it a masterpiece or an overcooked slab of self-indulgence, but there’s one thing you can’t call it: small. Everything about Annette is big, from the two-hours-plus running time to the multitude of characters and locations to the kaleidoscopic cinematography of Caroline Champetier and the insistently present score by Ron and Russell Mael, a.k.a. Sparks.
The story involves two performers and their child. The man is a comedian named Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), whose specialty is provoking his audiences. The woman is a soprano named Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), who specializes in death scenes. Driver’s character is as annoying as his name would suggest—calling himself “The Ape of God,” he takes to the stage in a hooded bathrobe, as if he’s auditioning for an installment of the Rocky franchise, and proceeds to engage on-stage in rather shopworn antics like burning money, quoting a smarty-pants Tom Lehrer song (with updated lyrics), and mooning the audience. McHenry may be a self-centered fool, but Annette is his movie, and Carax grants his story precedence over that of anyone else in Annette.
McHenry is supposed to be a big star, but he’s certainly not funny, and apparently is not intended to be—instead, he seems to be trying to be a one-man embodiment of the alienation effect, which is fitting, because you could interpret the entire film along similar lines. Don’t come to Annette looking for naturalism, and don’t try to interpret the actions you see in relation to anything like normal life, because Carax is working out of another playbook entirely.
Despite being opposites in temperament, Desfrasnoux and McHenry fall in love, and before you know it, there’s a baby on the way. That would be the title character, played by a lifelike marionette (with voice by Cotillard) in yet another distancing effect; the use of a puppet also neatly gets around the many difficulties involved in shooting a movie whose success rests on the performance of a very young actor. A whole lot of other stuff happens, but it would be tedious to try to summarize all that here, and the plot is not really the point of this film anyway.
The most obvious point of reference for so ambitious and all-encompassing a piece of work as Annette is grand opera, in this case made even grander because film allows Carax to burst the boundaries imposed by the stage. It’s a particularly tempting analogy because the Mael brothers originally intended Annette to be an album. Annette is opera-like in another way: much of the dialogue is sung, although there are also spoken lines. Surface similarities aside, however, the analogy really doesn’t hold up, however, because in opera, the music comes first, and everything else flows from there; if the music’s no good, all the costumes and sets and bravura performances in the world can’t save it. In Annette, the music itself is not that interesting, but it works very nicely as a lesser part of the whole, while the visuals take center stage.
The other reason the grand opera analogy doesn’t hold up is because opera, at least traditional grand opera, is all about emotion. Annette, in contrast, is more of an intellectual experience—you can recognize what Carax is doing, as he’s doing it, but you don’t feel much along the way. I was not bored during Annette, but that was largely due to the remarkable visuals rather than any attachment to the characters or any interest in how their story would turn out. | Sarah Boslaugh
Annette is opening in St. Louis theatres on August 6th and will become available on Amazon Prime Video on August 20th.