Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard Sing Songs in the Key of Carax


Renowned French director Leos Carax doesn’t make many films, but when he does, he does not hold back.  The word “bravura” comes to mind.  It’s been nearly a decade since he permanently, wonderfully perplexed cinephiles with his previous feature, the “glass darkly” career retrospective of sorts, Holy Motors.   That film, for many, remains the benchmark of unforgettable impenetrable art house; asking much of its audience, but paying off in unyielding creative dividends.  

Annette, by contrast, runs the other way, distilling and stewing in the most basic aspects of being human.  The original songs are singularly focused on whatever they’re about: laughing, being in love, enthusiasm for a new beginning, death, desperation, disappointment, justice, et cetera.  Did I mention that Annette is a musical?  It is a musical through and through, albeit in far more Umbrellas of Cherbourg than Singin’ in the Rain.  Which means, the many songs (by musicians’ musicians the Sparks Brothers- recently chronicled in a documentary by Edgar Wright) are generally less catchy and non-vibrant- but that’s just part of the intended experience.  

Annette, taking place in some sort of alternate reality L.A. where an opera singer (Marion Cotillard) and a shock “comedian” (more of a freeform performance artist in the spirit of Lenny Bruce going off the rails) are a celebrity couple, has no shortage of darkness.  Even in their supposedly happiest moments, their intimate duet “We love each other… so much…” plays like something of a dirge.  Again, it’s by design.  Despite the deceptively exuberant (and appealingly meta) opening number, this is not a happy story.  Near-Academy Award winner La La Landpulled the same stunt.  The extremes in play here are all the more pronounced, the tragedy all the more resonant.

Adam Driver plays the comedian Henry McHenry (that name!), a wild-haired acerbic personality who rides a motorcycle and does his shows in a green bathrobe and boxer briefs.  Twice, we are witnessed to extended portions of his act, and twice we can’t fathom what mass audiences would see in this angry, rambling, and clearly volatile guy.  Yet, he’s a celebrity and has his followers.  The same unfathomable quality applies to Donald Trump, who even now has no lack of hangers-on.  So there you go.  (God please bless America, ASAP).

Annette, quite interestingly, is an American story told by the thoroughly French Cinéma du look pioneer Carax.   (And entirely in English, to boot- the director’s first such effort).  Carax, older now and emboldened by his successful career of operating entirely his own way, has no qualms calling things as he sees them, nor indulging freely in symbolism and metaphor.  (Dirty words to far too many).

McHenry as played by national treasure Driver is as flamboyant and compelling as he is toxic.  (To drive home the point, he never stops smoking).  And we’re stuck with him.  We just are.  Welcome to America.  (It’s worth noting that Annette was filmed several years ago, an intended Cannes 2020 debut.  That festival was canceled due to COVID, prompting the studio (Amazon) to sit on it until a theatrical run was possible.  Whether now- amid the maddening delta variant uptick- is the right moment for said release is plenty debatable.  What’s not debatable, though, is that Annette absolutely belongs on a big screen.  In the meantime, the film eked out its Cannes premiere a year later, to a reported five-minute standing ovation.

The Cannes crowd, though, is one thing.  Mainstream audiences are entirely another.  Indeed, if the quality of any given film could be measured by the number of walkouts at an early screening in the American Midwest, then Annette is in the running for the title of “Best Movie Ever”.  No fewer than a dozen individuals in our modest preview audience got up and left at various points.  One nearby old man could be heard repeatedly grumbling to his wife, “What is this shit??”, ala Mel Brooks’ voice over of Ernest Pintoff’s abstract animated short, The Critic. Surprisingly, that couple lasted nearly an hour of the film’s 140-minute running time.

Narratively, Annette might be Carax’s most directly accessible work.  That said, it’s still Art with a capital “A”, and that alone is enough to shut it away from a great many comers.  The filmmaker’s typical collision of the maybe-metaphoric with the crashingly overt is simply too much for many would-be musical audience members to grapple with.  Indeed, if the notion of Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard starring in a new musical is all that attracts one to Annettecaveat emptor.  They, as well as their eventual namesake daughter character (an unforgettable presence that’s been withheld from the film’s publicity, so I too will withhold further key divulgences, other than to say she’ll likely be a meme star soon enough), execute the songs in a bold if imperfect manner.  The film culminates with one of the most astonishingly impressive child performances (Devyn McDowell) ever filmed.  Stay to the very end.

Contrary to the local response, I found Annette to be an ultimately rewarding endeavor, a breath of entirely fresh air in a summer movie-movie season that’s proven to be as predictably formulaic as it is sputtering.  For those whom the name “Leos Carax” means anything, they likely don’t need to be sold on this.  Just as his 1991 Lovers on the Bridge embraced a differently illuminated exploration of fine art, and Holy Motors deconstructed cinema itself, Annette challenges and appropriates live performance, as always through his own refractive lens.  The bent light is yours to wander into or aggressive recoil from.  This film, like those, is something to be patiently chewed on, thought about, grappled with, and even savored for years to come.