Leos Carax returns to release his first film in nine years. His previous effort, Holy Motors, itself coming after a long absence from feature films, turned heads by veering off into the world of dense meta-ness. Both seen as a key text in metatextual cinema and also metamodern cinema, Holy Motors was ahead of a wave in culture of the irony poisoned world of the 90s through to the 2010s transforming into something that enjoyed the flippancy of detached framing with a very non-ironic emotional sincerity at its core. Other examples that come to mind include the works of Wes Anderson such as Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Riders of Justice from earlier this year also struck a similar tone. Annette is no different. It is deeply referential to the history of cinema, it is deeply weird, and yet there is a core of emotion there to be uncovered by immersing yourself in the layers of ironic detachment. It is also a musical. It is also a musical with music written by 70s glam rock weirdos Sparks, (who happen to be a favourite band of mine).
The structure of Annette makes summing up the plot difficult. It initially follows Adam Driver as a provocateur comedian and his budding relationship with Marion Cotillard’s soprano. Slowly tension is introduced to the relationship as Driver’s demons, alcoholism, and violent tendencies overtake him. At one point he does a comedy set about killing his new wife. Where the story goes from there can only be described as… picaresque. It involves curses, sea ghosts, singing marionette babies, and multiple murder. I can’t really give any more details than that. I’ll just say that there are direct moments that, for me, evoked Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
This is after a bombastic opening number featuring Sparks themselves introducing the film, moving out from a recording studio onto the street with Marion and Adam. It is already breaking the fourth wall and making you aware of the film you’re watching, giving you this detached, once removed feeling about the film. It also desperately wants to create an emotionally authentic atmosphere for you to get lost in. It’s a weird opening, sure, but it’s a chaotic, cathartic opening. The breaking of the fourth wall in this case is less directly challenging per se, it’s meant to evoke a similar feeling to a custard pie in a character’s face. The brazen breaking of cinematic conventionality almost creates a feeling of light comedy, of quite a beautiful surface that you can just skim along. If you’re in the right headspace for it, it can be downright electrifying. This extends to a key scene where Driver and Cotillard are walking peacefully through a cornucopia singing to each other. Driver can uh, not sing in this film, or he chooses for his character to sing badly. So there’s a natural dissonance to him dueting with a soprano. They are singing “we love each other so much”. The scene is weird and arch and alienating, but yet there is something incredibly affecting about it, and like the film itself, there is a deep truth here.
The way in which the film is a musical is also curious because it is absolutely unconventional. Ironically, due to it’s soprano deuteragonist, it’s more comparable to opera in the way that the emotion is maximalist, and these dark, huge emotions are told through near constant song. It’s also very choppy. Spates of music will come in for mere seconds at a time only to cut back to action and then to a different seconds long stretch of song. While this can be certainly alienating, to fans of Spark’s myriad brilliant deep cuts this will be more familiar. For a start it relies on their exhaustive chaotic-good energy, but it also reminded me of one of their weirdest albums. ‘The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’ is a 2009 Sparks album. Considered a radio-musical, it’s a 64 minute concept album commissioned by Sweden’s national broadcaster as the radio play equivalent to the movie musical. Ron Mael of Sparks studied cinema at University and thus brings a huge amount of understanding of Bergman’s work to this fantastical, surreal tale of corruption in the pursuit of artistic freedom and perfection. It’s riveting and the songs bang. I think for my personal experience of Annette, this prepared me for quite how schizophrenic it could feel at times, flitting between plot points and types of movie experience with little consideration for whether an audience can keep up. It’s quite delirious and I rather enjoyed it.
It’s no surprise that Carax gets the very best out of his actors. Guiding them through the heady chaos. Driver and Cotillard are typically brilliant but on top of their game here. Driver manages the energy of a live stand up show interspersed with musical numbers where you’re not sure how diegetic any one piece of music is. He also presents as a compelling enigma. You’re never entirely sure how literal broiling rumours of violent potential are. You’re never sure whether the film is going to wind up as a condemnation of these shock-jock comedians like Ricky Gervais who really just say whatever offensive bollocks they want and expect it to be comedy, or a defence of people who provoke for the sake of making a point through art. In the end it ends up being a bit of both. It’s no coincidence that as Driver’s character gets older he begins to take on a closer and closer resemblance to Ron Mael. I’m still not entirely sure what that means to the subtext of the film, but it’s a mighty meaty and interesting statement. Cotillard is great in a disappointingly slim and two-dimensional role. However, real attention and plaudits have to be given to the breakout role in the movie, that being Simon Helberg. Helberg plays the accompanist to Cotillard at the opera and gradually moves and his arc is kind of incredible. Initially infatuated by Cotillard’s character, his character moves on after a certain point and becomes probably the most fully fleshed, fully realised character in the whole film. It’s the kind of character work we rarely see so reflective of the way life really works, where we are certain people at one point in life and gradually change and shift and become different people. The more we learn about ourselves, ironically, the more we change. We’ve always known Helberg was a good actor, he’s very funny in A Serious Man and he’s turned up to great effect in movies like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Goodnight and Good Luck, and Florence Foster Jenkins. However, he’s always felt trapped in the comedic persona he made his name with on TV. This however, is the point where we realise he’s a great actor. At 40, he has a whole half an average human lifetime left to capitalise on that and I, personally, can’t wait.
Annette is imperfect. It’s raggedy, and messy, and ill-disciplined in the best way, but it is certainly, deeply compelling.