If you’ve heard of Annette, it’s likely because of Adam Driver’s, shall we say, cunning linguistics during a musical number? (Deleting my account forever and throwing my laptop into the ocean.) There’s an emerging trend of clout-chasing journalists who emerge from a movie’s world premiere at a film festival and share the most outrageous moments to an unsuspecting online crowd for those sweet, sweet RTs … and then the discourse is irrevocably warped. You’d never know it was a story of artistic obsession in a marriage between an opera singer and a stand-up comedian as observed through the human toll it takes on themselves and everyone they love.
What we should really be talking about is Annette’s status as the latest output from France’s eccentric auteur Leos Carax, who gifts us with a new movie only about once every decade. He’s working with bigger stars and more budget than ever before, yet the results are still as baffling and bonkers as ever. I loved this movie, and I want you to be able to as well — which I fear might not be the case if you fly blind into it while scrolling the homepage of Amazon Prime Video.
You might not know the name Leos Carax, but rest assured, many of your filmmakers worship at the altar of his oddity. Fan of Frances Ha? Noah Baumbach ripped one of the film’s most iconic moments *directly* from Carax’s Mauvais Sang. (If you want to learn even more about Carax, I’d recommend The New York Times’ profile from last week.)
A new Carax film only comes about once a decade or so, and the gap is attributable both to artistic and financial reasons. His projects take a long time to develop and routinely encounter difficulty finding the money to get made. Nonetheless, they’re such singular works that are constantly exploding cinematic grammar to find a unique approach to their subjects. Whether it’s the burgeoning AIDS crisis in Mauvais Sang or the onslaught of digital cinema in Holy Motors, you can always be certain that Carax’s angle is wholly his own.
I think, as a society, we tend to assume genius confers intentionality. Take the deification in film circles of figures like David Fincher or Stanley Kubrick, whose precision seems to imply every decision came about as the result of their meticulous planning. I took away the opposite impression of Carax from the 30 minutes or so I sat in his presence at a Q&A following an opening night screening at Film at Lincoln Center. The soft-spoken director spoke of his intentionality, sure, but there often wasn’t some grand overarching vision guiding his artistic choices. Sometimes it was just a feeling, an attraction, a haunting he couldn’t shake … and he trusted himself enough to listen to that voice in his head.
This is all a long wind-up to say that Annette is quite mad, but there’s a method to it. To get to that what of the film, you will have to wade through the how of it. At 2 hours and 20 minutes long, there is a lot of how. I write the below not with the presumption that you do not know … but that you can! If you’re better armed with aligned expectations and sharpened critical instincts, you may put yourself in a better position to get more out of the film.
Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind while watching Annette is that the film adheres to the tenets of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater. If you dozed off during that intro theater class and have forgotten what that means, here’s a brief video with explanations from people far more intelligent and accomplished than I am:
The tl;dr on Brecht is that his predominant mode of engaging an audience was through alienation. He wanted viewers to constantly be aware that they were watching a work of art because he was suspicious of the subliminal messages that nefarious actors could slip in under the guise of spectacle. (This philosophy makes a lot of sense when you consider that his style developed in tandem with the rise of Nazism in Germany.)
By deconstructing the forms he utilized before people’s eyes, he made them aware of how storytelling conventions are hollow and potentially manipulative. Brecht eschewed identification with characters and emotional responsivity to a story as well. You aren’t supposed to see yourself in the work or feel your emotions validated. You’re supposed to recognize the ironic distance between yourself and the story. From there, you can engage with both “the art” (the piece itself) and “art” (the larger concept).
Carax does not take pains to hide the constructed nature of Annette; he appears in the opening scene, a musical number “So May We Start” that quite literally asks the audience for permission to begin the narrative in earnest. The film’s writers, Ron and Russell Mael of the pop duo Sparks, appear as well to perform the first of the numbers they wrote as the rock opera concept album that eventually became this film. Then, out come stars Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg … but as themselves, not their characters. The intention is clear: this is a movie, this is a fantasy, take this seriously but not literally.
This might sound horribly academic, but the Brechtian style adores irony and the clever deployment of clichés. If anything, the storytelling mode approximates parody in the way it exposes how mechanically our manufactured narratives function. This may be hard to grasp when you aren’t watching with a packed theater, but I can assure you — it’s OK to laugh at Annette! It is meant to be patently ridiculous at times because, to be frank, the entire musical genre (I can say as someone who loves them) is also a little wacky. The heightened sentimentality necessitated by people expressing themselves in song oftentimes serves to flatten complicated emotions and elevates trivial concerns into unnecessarily profound terms.
Take, for example, the film’s love theme sung between Driver and Cotillard. It’s literally called “We Love Each Other So Much.” The lyrics don’t get much deeper than that, though the Sparks’ ironic stylings at least give them some flair and bite. If you were watching/listening and assumed Annette was operating entirely on a sincere frequency, you’d probably turn the movie off — and I wouldn’t blame you! The song would just sound stupid and simplistic.
But think about it this way: the song is a commentary on how vapid love songs from musicals often are, using the format itself as a vessel for the critique. Once you realize it’s nothing more than a cliché, you can step back from the work a bit. You can remove yourself from the intricacies of what a song like this would normally convey and think about what these numbers really do and express.
(Also, tell me this song isn’t that much worse than the Academy Award-winning ditty “City of Stars” from La La Land, a song whose lyrics are so patently plain that they could easily have come from a Scary Movie-style parody of musicals.)
Or consider how the film introduces Simon Helberg’s accompanist, known just as The Accompanist. How different is this from the musical dialogue of, say, Lin-Manuel Miranda that slips in a lot of exposition and character background through song and verse? What really separates them is self-awareness. Annette forces you to cast an askance glance at conventions you accept as normal, at first in a harmless way like this before it graduates from silly clichés to more serious underlying messages conveyed by similar stories.
I won’t ramble on for too much longer, mostly because I think you deserve to have the experience of Annette preserved for your own shock/horror/delight. But when you feel the urge to give up on it or declare it a disaster, stop and consider if that feeling of estrangement and frustration is an intentional effect rather than a haphazard one. Carax is deliberately trying to push you away, yes, but not out of some misplaced sense of provocation. You’ll simply see the film more fully from a suitable distance, dissuaded of any romanticized notions about seeing yourself inside of it.
Is Annette really that stupid/crazy/simple/overwrought/[insert adjective here] … or is Carax just holding up a mirror and forcing you to confront how those qualities are embodied in another work that you love? Maybe now, you can see those things more clearly filtered through this off-kilter prism.
The jump-scare set will get a kick out of The Night House (now in theaters), which has a really solid first two acts before going a bit off the rails at the end.
Also, I got a chance to interview star Rebecca Hall, who I’ve been trying to talk to for no less than 5 years, over on Slant Magazine this week. I really loved getting to dive into the weeds of process with her and think it turned out really well. Check it out — it’s very minimal on plot details, in case you’re worried about spoilers.
If you have the tolerance to watch any content about COVID-19 while we’re still in the throes of the Delta variant, I think you can’t go wrong with Nanfu Wang’s documentary In the Same Breath (now streaming on HBO Max). Her bifurcated lens that analyzes the pandemic through both Chinese and American eyes makes for a valuable, cross-cultural perspective that can stand as something more than just a document of its time.
I don’t like to use my platform to bash movies, especially smaller ones, so I’ll keep those mentions brief in the newsletter. But I don’t just want to be an ignorant beam of false sunshine all the time, so I will offer some protection from movies I didn’t like.
This week, those would be Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo and Neil Blompkamp’s Demonic. The first was disappointing because I was really hoping I’d at least be able to appreciate the gonzo animation style’s verve, and the second continues to chart the stunning fall of grace by a filmmaker who burst onto the international stage with such promise in 2009 with District 9.
That’s it for today! Sorry for the delayed send, but I figured there are worse things than waiting to make sure people could actually see the film I’m talking about.
As a reminder, only paid subscribers would have gotten this post in a normal month. These remain free for the next few weeks, though. If you don’t want to miss any moving forward, please consider signing up now!
Yours in service and cinema,