I think five people walked out of the theater. First, a couple, after the puppet baby showed up on the screen. Then someone who’d come solo, seemingly just losing their patience. And then, finally, a couple a few seats away from me. I’d spotted them as I walked up toward the back of the theater to find a seat; the lights were still on overhead, and they already looked uncomfortable. When Marion Cotillard’s character reemerged from the ocean as a resuscitated sea corpse, body ravaged by saltwater and barnacles, hair in floor-length tendrils held taut by the weight of moisture and reminiscent of sea algae, they got up and left.
So Annette is not for everyone. We know that much.
Leos Carax has always played with the edge, pushed film and its concomitant parts — allegory, metaphor, plot and its undoings, pacing — to their absolute limit, seemingly seeing how many times he can hit his audiences over the head with an anvil until they really get what he’s trying to say, but not so many times that they die of blunt force obviousness.
Annette, Carax’s first film since 2012’s Holy Motors, follows a showbiz couple — the comedian Henry McHenry (a role that takes full advantage of Adam Driver’s enormous capacity for physical performance) and the opera singer Ann Desfranoux (delicately acted by an expert Marion Cotillard, unafraid of being overshadowed by Driver’s character) — as their careers ascend, together, and then Henry’s quickly plummets when he is accused by six different women of having abused and harassed them in some way. The allegations are vague, the stories said to resemble one another.
It’s a shock. Up until that point, Henry’s character has been set up as the sort of typical sad-bastard comedian, delivering lines like “I have great sympathy for abyss” during his shows, taking an aggressive attitude toward his audiences, yelling at them to laugh. We’re invited to believe that comedy is his primary venue for exorcising his demons.
He’s in love with Ann, who he calls “his” soprano, and though there’s something sinister (and unconvincing) pulsing underneath the surface as they sing “we love each other so much” in unison, we want to believe it; we want to believe them. Carax plays with that desire in his audience — the desire to believe that this person can be complex and dark but ultimately good, the desire to reject the simplistic version of the narrative in favor of something more verisimilar.
The illusion holds — until Ann starts to become a secondary character, her story quickly receding as Henry’s advances. She succeeds as an opera singer, supposedly, but we never really see it firsthand. But we do see, for example, Henry bombing spectacularly after telling a long and involved joke that starts with the line “this morning I killed my wife” and ends with him pantomiming tickling her feet until she screams in agony and collapses on the floor. He plays both parts: him tickling the feet in a lock between his torso and forearms, and Ann on her back, feet in the air, mouth open, tongue vibrating.
Driver deserves whatever accolades come his way after this film. Henry is clearly a man on the brink of collapse, barely held together by his relationship with Ann and, subsequently, with their newborn daughter, the movie’s namesake, Annette. Ann continues to recede as a character after Annette’s birth, overshadowed even by the news of Henry’s abuses. His star begins to fade, we are told, but we’re only shown more and more of him, and of Annette, who is played not by a child actor but by a number of painted mechanical puppets, not so lifelike as to be creepily uncanny — props to the puppet makers.
The film’s weakest scene shows Henry and Ann on a boat trip with Annette in a desperate attempt to save their marriage. The trip ends in a tragedy that unleashes the film’s final downward spiral, a dizzying trip through interpersonal betrayal, child exploitation, and masculine violence propelled forward by Ron and Russell Mael’s (together, the band Sparks) original music for the film.
It’s riveting and bracing, the film’s artifice blowing up the characters’ internal turmoils until they explode. A love fueled by ego is, in the end, no love at all; Henry is unable to outrun his lies. Carax presents us with powerful proclamations about life in a format so big, so fantastical, that they are impossible to ignore. Ultimately, though, I came away unconvinced.
Unlike Carax’s earlier work — specifically Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, which also dealt with the inner life of two in-love artists, except those artists happened to be down-and-out and living on the street — Annette stands at a remove from reality. Ann and Henry are gainfully employed in their respective métiers; they live in a beautiful, pseudo-mid-century house with a very long lap pool and lush landscaping; they get driven around by chauffeurs. A character who was once an accompanist becomes a conductor, overnight, as if by magic. There are no agents, no supporting roles, no one propping up these stars.
Ann and Henry have no needs beyond those for which their ambition begs. There are no forces bearing down on their lives except the full weight of their egos, which are, of course, tremendously damaging. And while any illness pushed to its tragic end is devastating, I don’t feel for Henry, a guy who ultimately just got in his own way. His aggression seemingly comes from nowhere, like it was just hiding until it wasn’t anymore, and, with no earthly needs left to fulfill, Henry simply points it at anyone who might interfere with his only remaining desire: the feeding of his ego. We’re asked to infer from thin air the existence of any noble desires he might have had and to believe that his ambition snuffed them out.
I don’t buy it. Nor do I buy Ann’s demure recession into the shadow of her husband’s violent star. Annette’s grandeur fascinates, but it’s ultimately unsubstantiated, a diversion that doesn’t stick. I was moved at times, sure; I found myself laughing and crying in equal measure, and some distillation of key elements into their purest forms — ego, self-love, self-hate, ambition, delusion — is necessary to stick the landing of fantasy. But Carax takes the artifice just too far, forgetting that big proclamations, powerful as they might be, need to also reflect life’s less bombastic, more mundane, complexities in order for us to believe them as the truth.