Movie Review: Annette is as great a musical you could expect from Leos Carax

After a 9 year absence, Leos Carax has finally given us another film, the musical Annette, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. The idea for the film found its genesis in a concept album idea by the band Sparks, who provided all the music for the film, but the result is quintessential Carax, bearing many of his stylistic trademarks.

Not only that, the theme of the film is nakedly autobiographical. Carax casts Driver as his onscreen avatar and fills the work with his own self-loathing, to the extent that it ends up as a confession that Carax believes he has mistreated his own daughter and ruined her life (the film is dedicated to her, and she and her father appear on screen together at the beginning).

Thankfully for the audience, this isn’t the only facet that shines bright. You may hesitate to spend 141 minutes inside the dark and twisted mind of a selfish man – yet again, cinema? one might cry – but when it’s Carax’s craft, it’s well worth it.

Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a provocative standup comedian who falls in love and begins a relationship with Marion Cotillard’s famous opera singer Ann Desfranoux. The narrative of their love story is told mostly through cheesy snippets from a fake celebrity gossip TV show. In between, their songs stretch each emotion to its breaking point, a much more beautiful place to dwell than the story that the gossip show propels forward. The songs expose the limits of Driver and Cotillard’s singing abilities, but this feels more raw and bold instead of sloppy. It’s definitely not a flaw.

Without giving away too much, it’s necessary to know that Henry is a louse, possibly a violent man, and this strikes fear in Ann’s heart. They have a baby, their relationship ends up on the rocks, and saying any more would be a cruel spoiler.

It’s in this first half, before a very sharp narrative turn, that the film stumbles occasionally. Because we’re watching Carax’s avatar, we don’t get the same depth of Ann’s opera world as we do Henry’s weird standup/performance art (personal quibble, but I wanted to spend more time with Ann than I did Henry – though Carax does slyly observe that most opera is just watching a woman get killed over and over again every night). The scenes of his routine go on far too long and are painful to watch. I think that’s the point – the filmmakers really despise standup – but it doesn’t change the fact that it robs the film of some momentum.

There’s also a brief aside where Henry is accused of sexual assault by several women. But this narrative thread is quickly discarded and seems to exist solely to inform Ann that her husband may be dangerous. It’s pretty tactless and the movie would be better without it.

(Note: after writing this review, I noticed that whoever wrote the Wikipedia synopsis thought Anne dreamed the #MeToo moment. Maybe I missed that. Regardless, it threatens to take the movie somewhere and then just… doesn’t.)

From a craftsmanship perspective, the film is superb. With the way he films Driver against drab greens and Cotillard with bright reds, Carax is almost smirking at the historical use of color in movie musicals (carefully note the point in the movie where Ann’s hair becomes green). It’s like a parody of Vincente Minnelli or Jacques Demi’s use of color, not a loving homage like La La Land. The way he delves into the psyche of a performer mid-performance reminds me of The Red Shoes. One particular performance venue toward the end of the film sort of jerked me out of the reverie created up till that point, but it served a painful story point in the process.

The lighting is some of the best I’ve seen on film in years: the sole headlight of a motorcycle on an empty midnight road. The lurid neons of a city nightclub. The silhouette of a wolf against a foggy urban backdrop. The soft green desk lamps of a dim courtroom. There are too many examples to cite. Every frame has some fascinating lighting in it.

There are many scenes shot on sound stages where, credit to Florian Sanson’s production design, they couldn’t possibly look better if shot on location. It would break the magic of the “backstage musical” genre. And yet, it still manages to look like Carax’s take on David Lynch’s Los Angeles.

The most impressive scene is on a yacht in a storm against rear-projected waves. Somehow, the more artificial it looks, the more evocative it is. It’s all framed perfectly in Caroline Champentier’s cinematography, whose work I must see more of.

In the end, the film is not just Carax’s self-loathing but his questioning of how much of his own power as an artist is drawn from the audience itself. The spectacle onstage, no matter how weird or beautiful or wrong, persists only with the audience’s participation. The opening musical number, an impressively staged long take, even asks our permission to start.

So, do you accept the artifice of the show or is it too much for you? One selfish man’s only possible connection to the world is through the adulation of a crowd watching him explore his own soul before self-destruction, treating his own daughter like a literal object in the process (I won’t spoil the ingenious and frightening way in just how the film does this). The final scene is extremely heartbreaking. “Stop watching me,” he demands through gritted teeth. But, as the filmmaker knows, once you ask us to observe, we are participating, and the artist doesn’t get to tell us when to stop.