Leos Carax doesn’t make many movies which makes his once a decade comeback feature film something to hold dear if you like me happens to have a strong emotional attachment for them (and Carax movies are very much intended to have this effect). His new movie Annette, now finally available in Brazil through Mubi, come a decade after Holy Motors, a critical triumph that he never quite had before, is for once shot in English, with two movie stars (Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard) and backing by one of the world’s major corporations (Amazon). That largeness is certainly on screen, of course Carax is no strange to size, The Lovers of Pont Neuf was once the most expensive French film ever made and one of the reasons, he works so little is that for a filmmaker dedicated to such unfashionable private worlds his movies are unusually expensive. Yet, more than in most of his early work this gulf is very present in Annette. One might say Leos Carax is the biggest purveyor of some kind of “amateur super production” and Annette with its mix of digital polish and Carax embarrassed awkwardness make such idea more explicit. It is after all a movie about a baby played by a puppet that behaves like such acts of foolishness are very easy for an audience to buy into.
The filmmaker I usually think as closest to Carax is Philippe Garrel whose own work is also proudly amateur although his budgets are decidedly minimal. They are both post New Wave movie brats whose work often suggest a taste for silent movie syntax and are very given to the physical presence of its stars. What one first remembers of their movies are beautiful lit faces and a sense of exhausted bodies. Their work is often hard, but there’s a consistent musical sense for them, Garrel is of course known for his dancing scenes at parties and Carax will likely always be linked to the image of Denis Lavant running through David Bowie’s Modern Love in his breakthrough Mauvais Sang. In both cases the physical displays are exuberant, but rather desperate. They are also artists dedicated to lovers’ self-absorption and power struggles inside couplings. Garrel is a May 1968 survivor who started in the 60s/70s underground whose work is informed by the idea of political failure, Carax was equally precious artist but come out in a period the separation between mainstream/underground was much clearer cut, politics are private while his worlds are bleak and paranoid. For all the vitality and enfant terrible reputation, there were always something very old about his point of view, while the quickest fresh critics were comparing his early work to Luc Besson’s, Carax was playing a small part in Godard’s King Lear and appearing in Garrel’s documentary about post New Wave filmmakers Les ministères de l’art along filmmakers like Chantal Akerman, Jacques Doillon and Werner Schroeter.
Young Carax made mad love tales about the thin line between love and narcissism. Aging Carax in Annette does the same, only what was mad is now just plain sour. The feeling remains intoxicating and Carax’s emphasis on emotion over reality and how characters disappear into its physical dimension is consistent, but the tentative destruction is placed above all else. The feelings itself are far from new as The Lovers of Pont Neuf was really a perversion of Chaplin’s City Lights with the Tramp rather having the blind grow becoming a miserable extension of him than risking losing her. But the idea is played more directly this time. The romantic euphoria has become muted even if the filmmaking has not. One might say that young Carax made movies of young man in love and since the passing of his longtime partner Katerina Golubeva in 2011, which is alluded in both Holy Motors and Annette, he started making widower movies that as Adrian Martin put in a very good review that goes in far longer detail of the movie autobiographical elements “The guilt – rational or not – that must linger for the surviving partner of one who suicides is a major undertone in Annette.”
Annette is a rock musical originated with Sparks, a duo formed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael. They developed the project before Carax getting involved and later adapted it for his needs, the film’s card reads “music by Sparks, lyrics by Ron Mael, Russell Mael and LC”. As Carax’s main collaborators whose sensibility is visible through the movie, it is useful to talk a bit about the Maels. The brothers have a clear affinity for movies, they both went to film school in the late 60s, their work has many movie references and their lyrics have often very strong visual images. Their desire for doing a movie musical is old, they stayed most the of the 90s developing a musical with Tim Burton, composed the score for Tsui Hark’s Knock Off (they had previous named a song after him in their 1994 Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins, and had hoped Tsui would directed that musical before it gain traction in Hollywood) and later did a stage musical called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman that has been in multiple stages of film development. Their musical work has gone through multiple stages and their taste for baroque pastiche has remained constant. It wouldn’t be absurd to say the Maels occupy a place in the last 50 years of pop/rock similar for the one Brian De Palma has on American popular movies: they are very self-aware about past history, there’s plenty of quotation marks in their work, a desire to play in other people’s houses, yet their appropriations are very apt ( for instance, when they got Giorgio Moroder to produce 1979’s The Number One Song in Heaven they got into disco floors without no one talking about they been a rock band doing disco the way the Rolling Stones did) and the emotions remain surprising sincere. Listening to a Sparks album one is as impressive with their craft as unsure about if they mean everything and that tension is often the most remarkable thing about them.
The Maels knack for finding very believable emotions out of artificial setups certainly appeal to Leos Carax. At the same time their sense of irony is clearly an odd new element in his work. Carax’s love for Chaplin is known and there’s many moments of physical comedy in his long partnership with actor Denis Levant. His routines on Holy Motors could be funny in all their despair, but Annette is the first Carax film that has a good amount of light humor like the satirical vignettes of gossip TV that help give context for the action or the numbers with doctors and the police (as a rule if someone that isn’t the four main characters start to sing in Annette it is usually funny). That is very far from Carax’s early work, when he adapted Herman Melville’s Pierre and the Ambiguities in 1999’s Pola X, he admits cutting all of the author’s satire because he didn’t know how to deal with it. The same irony also makes a lot of Annette very deliberate, since its Cannes debut, critics have tried hard to tiptoe around Cotillard’s fate as it is impossible to write about the movie without dealing with it, so when I finally caught Annette, it was amusing to notice that the way critics imply it without saying it out loud mirrors how the heavy emphasis in how her work as a soprano who always dies tragically for her audience makes clear to any attentive audience member the movie trajectory. At same time Carax lack of facility with straight verbal comedy might explain why Driver standup routine is mostly unfunny, although I’d say they play as very apt satire of how mainstream standup comedy has devolved to a performance art whose value as comedy is secondary. Carax regularly cuts to Driver’s Henry audience, and while that’s part to highlight his downfall trajectory, it also helps establish how Annette’s overall idea of artistic expression does take reception very much into account. What seems to me so funny about Henry’s routine is understanding the audience is there either out of a masochist desire or because his violent “ape of god” persona speaks to them.
Because Annette is a nearly all sung musical by a French auteur, the first impulse is certainly to think about the Jacques Demy/Michel Legrand musicals, and while those are not short of bleakness and occasional murder, Annette overall effect remains very distant from them. A major thing that Maels bring to the film is shape, as recording artists first and dramatists second, they organize it as an album, a series of individual numbers in which characters are always declaring in song, a series of monologues instead of duets that fit the tentative but failed connections throughout. It is interesting that late in the movie Simon Helberg character reveals that the love duet between Driver and Coitllard was actually composed by him for Ann, because when its first introduced despite Cottilard singing some of it, Driver dominant performance does turn “We Love Each Other So Much” into something much closer to “I Love You So Much” with all the emphasis put in the performance of a man positioning himself as in love. Indeed, only in the final number between Henry and Annette does something approaching an actual duet, with characters communicating conflicting emotions to each other, fully takes place. Father and daughter are in complete disagreement, but they are singing together.
It opens and closes with scenes that reinforce its place as a show as musicals often do, but I was surprised by how much it return to this time and again, not only with so much material about performance, but by just consistent making a point that there is an “us” watching it, that its an opera whose mixed emotions consistent move between the private personal expression and something that is there on display to be consumed by its audience. On this, I also suspect there’s a distance between Carax and the Maels ideas of showmanship, both are enamored with artifice and spectacle as means of personal expression, but with different spins in what putting a show means. The process of putting a show is very central to the film’s subject as is e of watching one. Why does Henry invite the Accompanist to follow him in Annette’s tour? The movie needs him there to dramatize Henry’s more violent urges, but that doubles as Henry’s own need to have a familiar face around, his own new persona as stage dad needs it as much as his previous edgy comic needs one. In the same key, Carax stage Henry and Ann’s first scene in the movie as him pretty much making a large gesture of their meeting and a lot of their intimate scenes have a similar quality. Annette’s own gift is treated as something that needs to be shared even against the idea of exploitation. The movie ends with Henry asking the audience to stop watching an elaboration of Annette’s own decision to stop singing, a rhetorical gambit that could easily sound smug but works due to the physical weight Driver and Carax give the moment.
The movie starts promising a romance. The big promise of movie musicals with extra dose of doom given how the movie is quick to establish Driver’s danger. If it is a love story, it is very much one about a guy’s difficulties to extend it to others. Ann and Annette are both in very different ways props for Henry’s performance of love. Cottillard suffers a good deal in consequence of this, the movie truly expresses itself in the scenes between Driver and the baby and in her scenes the strings of the Carax/Sparks proposition are easy to notice. Ann is the avenue the leads to Henry expressing his destruction behavior. Even in life, Ann remains pretty much an ethereal ghost in what is otherwise a very physical movie. Cottilard presence is like the reverse baby Annette which I assume is intentional. She is good, but in a very recessive manner and one that is a large contrast with performances in Carax movies in general. One might say that in a movie about toxic narcissism, there’s something about a movie star’s willingness to let herself get upstaged for the good of her movie.
Annette follows the same template of every Carax movie in making its very artificial construction getting anchored by a physical performance. Driver is closer to Guillaume Depardieu in the underseen Pola X than he is to the more exuberant Denis Lavant in Carax other features, bulky animalesque but more reserved which in both cases fit their movies, It certainly wouldn’t work without him. Pola X deals with a great amount of aristocratic repression getting unloaded in the middle of incestual desire, while Annette has an open aggressive form of being faced with the existence of a daughter. The shots of Henry in the motorcycle feels like a very direct allusion to the early movie. Annette often seems to stop just to watch the portent way Henry moves. The way the passage between his brutish presence and all the outsized emotion Carax paints around him remains consistently powerful. And there’s something to be said about how the film and Driver moves between the scenes when Henry acknowledges he is on stage and the scenes he gives himself to private performance, they enlighten each other but play different. Driver gets to share screen time with four very different performances, Cotillard ethereal presence, the very weight but artificial daughter and Simon Helberg who underlines every possible doubt in his character disappearing in neuroticism instead of narcissism.
There’s very little joy here outside of the opening and closing even the romantic scenes are just too consumed by the characters self-absorption to quite register that way, but baby Annette’s birth is a lovely respite in the middle of all that. The movie to a certain extent hangs on how one reacts to the idea of the baby puppet. Carax is a very physical filmmaker, but also a radical anti-naturalist one. Annette is full of very movie-like pleasures at the same time it often operates towards putting them in sharp relief. No more than the puppet. In some ways it is a clear idea, because Henry can’t see his daughter as a person, she only gets to be played by a young actress when he can acknowledge her, but Carax turns it into the film’s emotional center, everything comes from the puppet, everyone projects into it, the puppet is always seen carrying an ape doll to represent her father and his big fight scene with the accompanist is introduced with the sight of the ape getting replaced by a miniature piano. Everything is imbued with life as the film help us to adapt to the emotional state of a fiction that hangs on a puppet. To get into Annette’s wavelength one must get into this idea of how emotions get projected around. Henry is a bad father as he is a bad husband, but Annette’s is very much a father’s movie, it starts with Carax himself sharing screen with his daughter Nastya and ends by dedicating it to her. The final moment when father and daughter can finally act without the theatrical artifice barriers (with Devyn McDowell replacing the puppet) has a release power few moments in current movies achieved, there’s still plenty of artifice around them (including making Driver looking suspicious like his director), but their mutual pleas as giving so much space by Carax to cut through Sparks more deliberate construction, a genuine connection of emotional truth is achieved even if for this movie credit no conciliation is quite possible.