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‘Annette’ Review: A whirlwind musical about art, artists and tragedy from Leos Carax

The French filmmaker's unpredictable style meshes with the idiosyncratic musical flair of Sparks to create something chaotic, self-referential and moving.

A prison cell, a backroom comedy show, a cramped luxury jetliner and a boat deck about to be swallowed by a mighty storm are among the places that become stages in Leos Carax’s mystical and mocking musical “Annette,” a cinematic jubilee in which confetti canons have been emptied out and filled with the prickly goatheads of stardom’s self-disillusionment. Pick any elegantly moody frame, line of dialogue or sing-song note and in it “Annette” shows itself to be a movie of proper posture – a movie that’s “accessible,” that is – while at the very same time referring to its own operatic melodrama with a scowl, as if the French filmmaker looked at characters singing their way through life’s trials with amazement that they could muster a melody at all. You might find yourself tugging at the same contradiction; that’s just the name of this game.  

The film has landed on Amazon Prime a few weeks after its opening night premiere at Cannes and nine years after Carax’s melancholy ode to the evolution of art, “Holy Motors,” a span of time which may inform “Annette” insomuch as the intentions of art (of moviemaking, yes, but not only moviemaking) have evolved with increasingly swift-moving gears in the last decade. And yet, for how much those nine years may partially explain why “Annette” feels like such a counterbalance to “Holy Motors” with its fluid structure and vivid grandiosity (“Holy Motors” is neatly segmented and beguilingly reclusive by comparison), Carax’s newest also reveals itself as the concluding segment of a diptych about showmanship and finding ourselves lost in a world of our own making.

It’s part of the filmmaker’s inexplicable charm and his mischievousness that the “our” refers as much to his characters as to his audience. “Annette’s” story and music were imagined by Sparks duo Ron and Russell Mael amid their breakout year at the cinema, and while any review may recount the narrative basics of a celebrity couple’s fall into love and subsequent plummet into loss through mournful musical monologues and dejected ditties, the movie that’s likely to form in your mind when reading those words is likely not at all the “Annette” you’ll watch.

Such is the boldness with which Carax directs the Maels’ cautious fable; the mania with which Adam Driver breathes carnivorous life into his callous comedian character, Henry McHenry; the high-pitched whimsy which can sometimes awkwardly suppress the rock opera’s brutish developments; and the recognition which may dawn on you from the most beguiling depiction of the movie’s titular talented toddler that the very things meant to enchant us over the course of this movie’s 140 minutes are also meant to be interrogated. “Annette” doesn’t shift tones so much as tenors, constantly morphing between biting cockiness and alluring romance to reflect Henry McHenry’s state of mind and the story’s plummet into disassociation.

But our own proclivities about storytelling and imagery vivid enough to puncture the screen are also reflected back at us, at where we stand relative to the positions of art and artists and people trapped so deep in the spotlight of celebrity they have no choice but to fluff the pillows and make the place comfortable. The Mael brothers’ lyrics, with their trademark repetitiveness, emphasize how our characters tend to mistake agency for destiny, and Caroline Champetier’s arresting cinematography creates scenes from equal doses of majesty and ridiculousness. The movie may yield limits to our investment in its director’s style, but rarely limits of our appreciation. Truth can be wrung from the constriction of performance, and Carax shows as much in “Annette.” What he also shows is that so, too, can falsity.

"Annette" is rated R for sexual content including some nudity, and for language. It's now screening in some theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime. 

Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell

Directed by Leos Carax

2021