The Twisted Dreamscape of Leos Carax’s ‘Annette’

The surreal rock opera, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is gritty muscial examining sex, power and family relations under intense glare of fame

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BY Carlos Valladares in Film , Opinion , Reviews | 02 AUG 21

The silly-sublime rock opera is back. After the empty noise raised by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s In the Heights (2021) and the postmodern musical trifles of Damien Chazelle (La La Land, 2016) and Edgar Wright (Baby Driver, 2017), Annette signals the US musical’s full-fledged return to inspired maximalism and dream logic. For this, we must thank the French director Leos Carax, who has been working for the past eight years with the weirdo-electro-pop duo Sparks (Ron and Russell Mael) on this magnificently curdled and joyless yet brutally honest movie. With Annette, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival on 6 July, Sparks and Carax have replenished the rankled state of US musical cinema by remembering the best lessons from Ken Russell (Savage Messiah, 1972, Tommy and Lizstomania, both 1975). But, unlike Russell’s films, slam-bang, trashy camp is not what makes Annette unforgettable. Rather, it’s the grim, surrealistic way that Carax explores problems of sex and power as Russell did: this time, fragile white men in authority, abusers, toxic relationships and tragic attachments.

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Leos Carax, Annette, 2021, film still. Courtesy: Amazon Studios

Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry a.k.a. the Ape of God: a ‘mildly offensive’ stand-up comic in the scummy Lenny Bruce tradition who, unrealistically, can still shock the faux-bobo denizens of Silver Lake, Los Angeles. An egomaniacal monster whom you want toppled and smashed, Driver’s Henry prowls like a zoo leopard in long-take tableaux as he wavers in and out of Brechtian Sprechgesang, howling in desperation and a too-intense rage at the audience that catapulted him to fame: ‘Yes, yes, yes, laugh, laugh, laugh. What’s your fucking problem?’ Henry dates Ann (Marion Cotillard), a doe-eyed soprano with a sweet demeanor and a redhead pixie cut à la Jean Seberg. They shock the press and their intimates: ‘What does she see in him?’ To save the relationship, they conceive a child, Baby Annette: a petit guignol, played by a literal puppet. After a series of tragedies, Henry and Ann’s relationship sinks, and under the tutelage of an increasingly psychotic Driver, their puppet baby becomes a global superstar.

Carax thanks Edgar Allen Poe in the credits, which made me wonder whether he was aiming for his own entry in that long heritage of the grotesque that has gripped the romantic imagination of modernists going back to the 19th-century poetry of Charles Baudelaire. If so, he aimed well. Annette is one of the great disaffected musicals, in the league of It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), New York, New York (1977) and Pennies from Heaven (1978). It has the edge on all the above three in its spectacularly eccentric conceits: morbidly green swimming pools that look like they’ve not been cleaned for decades; a title character creepily ventriloquized in her motions; a suppression of dance, except for Driver’s random, mocking bourrée through a crowd of paparazzi. Often violently unpleasant to watch (two murders and a lifetime of trauma afflicted onto an exploited child do not a crowd-pleaser make), Annette hews to a bizarre song-speech, openly contemptuous of its audience’s embrace of social-media narcissism. It’s the dream musical of a jaded psychoanalyst who wants his patient to kill the father and the mother – and who wants to live vicariously through these murders.

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Leos Carax, Annette, 2021, film still. Courtesy: Amazon Studios

Beyond its general weirdness, Annette is pretty blatant about the process by which children are moulded into extensions of their parents to be adulated and loved by a network of fans. Henry turns Annette into a pop-star spectacle for most of her puppet life. But once she grows up – in a sudden, five-minute burst of fury by five-year-old Devyn McDowell, who ranks with Beatrice Straight in Network (1976) and Penelope Allen in Scarecrow (1973) in terms of walk-on roles that establish a movie’s emotional core – Annette begins to doubt everything she’s been taught. No longer a puppet, but flesh and blood, Annette begins the long, tragic process that takes up most of our adult lives: killing the masters that formed us.

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Leos Carax, Annette, 2021, film still. Courtesy: Amazon Studios

Annette is hard to like at first, because it doesn’t want you to like it. Instead, it lodges somewhere sweet and hidden in the mind – a stubborn, ugly, gruesome abscess. Annette is a polished sickliness, an abnormality, a sweep of atonal notes that, over time, reveal their charming, unique and beautiful construction.

Main image: Leos Carax, Annette, 2021, film still. Courtesy: Amazon Studios

Carlos Valladares is a writer, critic and PhD student in the departments of art history and film at Yale University. He has a column on film for Gagosian Quarterly and has appeared in n+1 and The San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in New York.

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