This weekend, cinema lovers in India finally got to watch Leos Carax's latest film that landed him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. After getting a start through being a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, Carax went onto make films by notoriously blending truth and fiction, imbuing his own distinct style over them. However, it was the 2012 film Holy Motors that gained everyone's attention. After almost a decade, he again exposes the essence of truth through the lens of cinema in Annette. Based on a screenplay by Los Angeles natives Ron and Russell Mael, the duo known as 'Sparks Brothers', the film tells the story of a self loathing comedian, Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), a singer who performs opera. Henry has rage and he enslaves the audience, whereas Ann saves her audience. "We now ask for your complete attention," announces a voice as the production logos begin to roll. "You are now kindly requested to keep silent and to hold your breath until the very end of the show. Breathing will not be tolerated. So please take a deep, last breath right now." And that's what we do, as Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard metamorphose into their fictional characters.
Sparks Brothers' terrific artistic integrity percolates through the screen. Known for their confrontational style of music, the film too stands out among other contemporary works and feels ahead of its time in the way it's presented. That's kind of ironic, because the story the film tells is as old as time itself. It's the presentation in which it decides to tell itself, however, that elevates the film to whole new heights. The flickering frames where nothing remains static never come across as jarring, thanks to the brilliant cinematography by Caroline Champetier (Holy Motors). There's not much room left for nuance here, except for the ending; you as an audience are told everything that will happen in the next scene. And how does the film decide to do that, you ask? The foreshadowing is done in the best classical musical way. The text and the subtext are all the same thing here, which might feel too mannerist to some of its viewers. But Annette oozes with originality and the stunning charisma of its leads, making full use of its structural and thematic potential. And that's why it doesn't feel jarring once you're in the world – the film literally invites you in. The screenplay never tries to juggle between theater and cinema. It feels surreal because everything feels artificial, but not in a negative way. Annette doesn't try to play it safe by fooling you into believing that you're watching real life unfold; it goes all the way in.
Within the first act of the film itself, we're made aware of the jealousy Henry feels towards Ann. She had always been the one who was more 'popular'. Henry feels restless, unable to sleep. He would look at her while she's sleeping and the film would actually make us believe for a moment that he's doing it out of pure care and wonder. Soon after they marry, Henry and Ann have a daughter named Annette, who of course, is a puppet. It's here where the film takes its meta-ness a step further. I don't know if it's because we as humans have this habit to anthropologise things that even remotely look human, but the artistic choice seemingly works here. Even though the puppet undeniably works as a perfect dehumanized metaphor, it's not just limited to that. We finally begin to see what the film's trying to say through the lens of its male protagonist. The story is from the perspective of Henry; his impression of the world is that everything is a part of a grand play. He's delved down the road of narcissism so inherently that he wants the world to revolve around him. Even if that means controlling his own daughter and using her as a puppet to gain the fame and glamour that his aplomb persona is increasingly losing a hold over. He looks at something so pure in a calculating manner, only thinking about how it could serve him in the longer run. The film turns his self deprecating humor trope upside down and makes a show out of it. We as the viewer, are delighted.
Being a french director and also having worked as a critic for so long, it's inevitable for one to see the influence of Jean-Luc Godard in Carax's work. Apart from the more noticeable traits like the use of jump-cuts, there's also some underlying echoes of the French culture in general peppered throughout Annette. We've seen the 'Fame Is Tragedy' theme play out in movies so many times since decades, that now it's become like watching a train-wreck from a mile away. Annette wants you to acknowledge that, and yet it surprises you with its other takes on modern culture. Even when the film wants to show passage of time, it does so with creative originality by making a statement on SBN ("show biz news"), to keep the viewer on edge. I've honestly not seen that theme portrayed on screen in such a clever way. What a brilliant and insightful way of showing how we're living in times where everything's known for its creative output. It all hits home harder when it echoes through the character of Henry, excellently carried by Adam Driver as he again proves that he's one of the most exciting actors of our times. It's no surprise that the film literally mentions the phrase "like a moth to a flame" which sums up the theme that sits at the center of the screenplay.
Annette easily has one of the best last acts I've watched in a film all year. After a stunningly (and surprisingly) overwhelming sequence at a stadium, a confrontation between Henry and Annette follows. We get this one scene where we actually get to watch baby Annette for the first time, as who she really is. But as the puppet dies, so does her creativity in the eyes of her father. But will he learn? Is someone as provocative and toxic as Henry capable of realization and more importantly- redemption?
From its Shakespearean first act that sets the tone for the film, till its operatic climax, Annette never feels dull in its execution and scope. While making an overstatement about male egotism, people in showbiz and their personal jealousies through its wry humour, Annette does something far deeper. The film sets the stage for something far more timely and important for us to think about. Where does the line of the cosmic membrane between the stage and real life fade out? Is the life of an artist meant for loving or loathing? Is there even a line? When Henry sings along the song "We Love Each Other" with Ann, is the couple convincing us of that with the use of deliberate repetition, or themself? The film leaves us with many interesting questions. That's precisely why Annette needs to be watched and studied many times over. You can watch Annette on MUBI India.