Director: Leos Carax
Writers: Ron Mael, Russel Mael
Cast: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Cinematographer: Caroline Champetier
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Honest confession – I struggle with Western musicals because they have too much music in them. Which seems like a ridiculous complaint given that my first love is Bollywood. Song-and-dance is embedded in my DNA. The difference is that in Western musicals, songs are often sung dialogue and the wall-to-wall musicality becomes a slog. Case in point – Les Miserables, which won three Oscars including Best Supporting Actress for Anne Hathaway – but left me cold. So it was with some trepidation that I went into Leos Carax’s Annette.
Annette, like La La Land, A Star Is Born or closer to home, Abhimaan, is a showbiz love story. Henry, a performance artist, and Ann, an operatic soprano, form a swoony, dazzling bond. They share a deep emotional rapport and sexual bliss – in one of the film’s most talked about scenes, Henry sings mid-cunnilingus. At one point, arm in arm, they declare in song and without irony – we love each other so much. But Henry’s feelings for Ann are twisted by a toxic mix of entitlement, self-loathing, aggression and perhaps jealousy that becomes more acute as she becomes more successful. Though that is too simplistic an explanation for what transpires between them.
Henry does a one-man show called The Ape of God in which he swaggers on stage, in a bathrobe and wars with his audience. At the end, he drops the bathrobe and moons them. He’s obviously talented and brilliant but his cynicism, aggression and hostility teeters on ugly. He tells them that he is engaged and follows that up with – Is she too perfect and I some loathsome insect? Okay, I’ll accept that. Later, when Ann asks how his show was, he says: I killed them, murdered them, destroyed them. When he asks about hers, she says of her audience: I saved them. With his impressively sculpted body, Henry looms over the fragile, almost angelic-looking Ann. It’s beauty and the beast but not in a good way. You instinctively understand that this cannot end well.
Annette is a collaboration between Carax and Ron and Russell Mael, who constitute the band Sparks. The Mael brothers wrote the script and the songs – my favourites were So May We Start and We Love Each Other So Much. The film begins with the Mael brothers in the recording studio with Carax and his daughter Nastya, whom the film is dedicated to, behind the mixing board. They then walk out into the street with Adam Driver, who plays Henry, and Marion Cotillard, who plays Ann. The two actors slowly move into character. He puts on a wig and motorcycle helmet. She steps into an SUV.
From this first sequence, Carax builds artifice into the story. He wants us to understand that all of this is make-believe, which means that anything is possible. So that later when Ann gives birth to their daughter Annette, who is played by a mechanical puppet, we aren’t thrown. The film works like an eye-popping hallucination. The emotions are naked and raw but the visuals are purposefully exaggerated and fake. It’s beautiful and determinedly bonkers.
The actors mine the core of sadness in the film. Driver’s imposing physicality gives him a brutish swagger. He is feral and frightening but also charismatic. Annette is two hours and twenty minutes long. There are stretches that feel lethargic but it’s impossible to look away from Driver. He has a hypnotic menace about him. Ann, sadly, isn’t written with the same complexity or flourish. Despite Cotillard’s magnetic presence, we don’t get enough of a sense of her. But if you believe that there is no way to get emotionally invested in a puppet, think again. By the climax, when little Annette is levitating above a crowd of cheering fans and singing, I was teary and genuinely moved.
I know that the film won’t have this same impact on everyone. Annette is accessible but also, gorgeously strange. And yet, I strongly recommend that you give it a shot because this is storytelling with eccentricity, originality and jaw-dropping audacity. For which Carax won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
You can watch Annette on MUBI India.