In 2020, the Cannes Film Festival was canceled because of a virus that put the world on hold. Finally, the festival returned in 2021, and everyone looked forward to the best films that would play at this prestigious event. And to open this edition of the festival, the film selected was ‘Annette,’ French filmmaker Leos Carax’s sixth full-length feature, his first in 9 years.
A lot has been speculated since the first time Annette was mentioned back in 2016 when it didn’t even have a title. Given the profoundly fantastic experience of Holy Motors, Annette was bound to be a much-awaited feature. Now that it’s finally out, let’s see how good, bad or weird it really is.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
‘Annette’ Plot Summary – An Avant-Garde Rock Opera
Annette is a Rock Opera based on a story by the musical duo Sparks (Ron & Russell Maer). They co-wrote the screenplay with director Leos Carax, who had expressed his desire to make his English language debut with Adam Driver a few years back. Cut to 2021, and Annette premiers as the opening film at Cannes, starring the supremely talented Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.
The film opens in an aesthetically appropriate meta manner – Carax is sitting at the mixing board, where he calls his daughter Nastya (to whom he’s dedicated the film) and proceeds to record. Inside the recording studio, Ron & Russell Maer begin their performance, continuing as they walk out of the studio. The song they’re playing is ‘So May We Start,’ and they’re joined by the film’s star cast, supporting actors, and background singers who slowly don their costumes as they walk on the streets of LA in a single take. The performance is a literal setup for the film and ends with the Driver getting on a bike and riding off; Cotillard gets inside an SUV and is driven away. Both these stars reach their respective destinations – theatres where they are to perform their separate acts.
Driver plays Henry McHenry, a stand-up comedian who’s known for his solo act, ‘The Ape of God’, a provocative soliloquy that’s passed off as comedy, where occasionally he ‘banters’ with the crowd in a perceivably hostile manner. On the other hand, Cotillard plays Ann, a renowned opera singer whose performance aesthetically contrasts Henry’s. Obviously, when the two are spotted together, the paparazzi have the time of their lives. The film doesn’t show us how the two met or fell in love, instead of jumping straight into the annoyingly catchy ‘We Love Each Other So Much,’ a song that the two sing whilst walking in a garden, romancing each other – an absurdly funny yet believable scene beautifully realized by the two leads.
Soon, Ann is revealed to be pregnant, and they have a daughter whom they name Annette. In time Ann’s career begins to flourish while Henry takes a dip, leaving him a resentful and jealous man. A drama follows ahead.
Bare Naked Maladies
When Leos Carax debuted with ‘Boy Meets Girl’ in 1986, he was only 24. His film showed heavy influences of the Nouvelle Vague while also showing promise of post-new-wave energy. With his later features ‘Mauvais Sang’ and ‘Les Amants du Pont Neuf’, Carax’s place as an enfant terrible of French cinema was cemented. His hyper-stylized vision coupled with troubling themes and troubled characters made every single film of his a riveting watch. The epitome of Carax’s genius was realized in Holy Motors in 2012, a surreal look into the very act of creation – be it filmmaking or acting – presented in a starkly original manner. As with all great filmmakers, Carax’s films, too, reflect something deeply personal.
All that being said, not much is known about Carax’s personal life. His real name is Alex Dupont. He was married to Yekaterina Golubeva, a Russian actress who passed away a few years ago; the cause of her death remains unknown. Why am I bringing all this up? Annette might just be a nightmare realized by Carax following his beloved’s death. I’ve already said too much, but once you watch the film, you’ll understand why I said this. Hell, the film is titled ‘Annette,’ the daughter of the two leads, and is dedicated to Nastya, Carax and Golubeva’s daughter.
A fever dream of epic proportions, Annette follows a story similar to ‘A Star is Born’ but uses its avant-garde aesthetic to make its darker themes loud and disorienting. After Annette is born, Ann’s career is on the rise, while Henry’s career is on the downward slope. Naturally, Henry takes to self-destructive habits of alcoholism and rage, a staple of toxic masculinity. However, unlike A Star is Born, Henry doesn’t sacrifice anything for his beloved, instead actively sabotaging Ann’s life till the very end. Henry is not a likable character, which is made clear in his opening stand-up act. His actions going forward only make him all the more detestable, with every new layer adding another thing to dislike about him.
Carax has been a part of the art community for a while now. He’s a known name and has worked with some of the best in the industry. Carax clearly has a deeper, more personal insight into the lives of famous artists. With Annette, he hasn’t shied away from presenting the darkest, most disturbing aspects of it in an unsurprisingly frank manner. This is an art film, so it doesn’t need to rely on the rules of cinema. It can be frank, direct, meta even, as long as it fits into the aesthetic decided by the filmmaker, and with Annette, everything fits like a glove.
Henry is a narcissistic, self-loathing, and self-hating artist who’s making a living by packaging his psychological traumas in the shiny covers of his art. He cannot stand the fact that someone else is getting more attention than him, which naturally causes a rift in his relationship with Ann. The way he uses Annette for his own selfish needs is shown in the frankest and direct manner. The drama doesn’t come from seeing how he might succeed or how he might be caught in the act, but the fact that he’s getting away with so much unscathed. With every passing scene, Henry’s darker psyche becomes more precise, revealing layers that only make you detest him all the more. By the end of the film, Henry looks strikingly similar to Carax himself, and the film ends with Henry avoiding the camera.
Is this Carax’s way of expressing some sort of guilt? Is this his way of commenting on the pervasive manner in which the media commodify the lives of celebrities? Just read about the disgusting media circus that was the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput, and you’ll know what I mean. Perhaps Carax, too, had to evade the media when his partner passed away. The paparazzi especially plays a significant role in Annette, with mini featurettes and news reports acting as chapter breaks in the narrative. There’s even a scene reminiscent of the #MeToo movement that once again puts Henry’s toxicity to the frontlines via the women from his past.
Annette lays its themes – and characters – bare and naked for the audiences to see, and even then, there’s a lot behind the visible flesh that you’ll need to dig into to understand what’s happening. Annette has so many layers to it that you’ll need to watch it multiple times before you can unravel them all. With Annette, Carax has made a feature that lives up to his expectations with Holy Motors.
A Riveting Performance
Driver lives up to all expectations, delivering a fantastically hateable character. Although she isn’t in the front seat like Driver, Cotillard manages to shine just as brightly. I was a little upset that she wasn’t as big a part of the narrative as I had hoped because Cotillard is a fine actor, and seeing her on-screen is always a treat.
The music, however, left something to be desired. The opening performance is excellent, but I found the songs a little repetitive going forward. Was this Carax’s way of showing the degrading creative talents of his protagonist, or am I reading too much into this? I’m not a fan of musicals, so that might be one reason why I wasn’t able to enjoy Annette as much as Holy Motors. I found it a little disorienting to see the characters sing and only sing. The most dialogue in the film is Driver’s stand-up, and even those scenes are punctuated with background singers.
Annette is a rock opera, a musical, a tragedy, a romantic drama. It plays around with all those aspects in a creatively chaotic manner that will appeal to some and drive some away. Music has always played a significant role in Carax’s filmography, so it is no surprise that he’s taken that aspect to its epitome with Annette. The musical packaging might seem a little off-putting to some, but everything else was simply outstanding.
Annette is everything you’d expect from a Leos Carax film. It’s an absurdly surreal experience that is a must-watch on the big screen. It might not be the profoundly exhilarating experience that Holy Motors was, it is still a powerful statement from the enfant terrible cinéma français.
I’ll definitely recommend Annette.
Annette is a 2021 Drama Musical Film directed by Leos Carax. It stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in the lead roles.