“Why are you a comedian?” asks a rapturous audience when Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) takes the stage wearing just a boxer’s hooded robe and a pair of spandex shorts underneath. His deadpan face, brute masculinity on show and choice of words reveal his rage and self-loathing. What is he angry about? Is it the uproarious praise that his partner, the talented soprano Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), gets every time she is on stage?
Does he resent her classical delicateness and how the world reveres it and loves it? We’re never sure till the end of this deliciously absurd musical by French director Leos Carax.
Henry is unapologetic being a misanthrope. He muses about death, cruelty and fame and derides the very audience he speaks to. Like how most nasty narratives of celebrities ripen and get looped in public memory and social media, the audience laps up his existential venom and wants more.
He gives more and more. His answer to the question of why a comedian: “To disarm people…it’s the only way I know to tell the truth without getting killed.” Who then is going to die? Perhaps the clue is there early on:
Ann: How did the show go?
Henry: I killed them, destroyed them, murdered them.
Ann: Good boy.
Henry: And your gig?
Ann: I saved them.
Henry: Well, you die so magnificently. Honey, you’re always dying.
Annette is a weird and wonderful fable, an invitation to shed all sense of political correctness and narrative formulae and listen in to the beating heart of the magical child Annette, born to Ann and Henry.
Mubi is streaming this unsullied, unapologetic work of artistry. Written by Carax and Sparks, the American musical duo Ron Mael and Russell Mael (who also serve as the composers), Annette sets up the opposition between feral masculinity and all-pleasing classical beauty in brilliantly-crafted set pieces.
Carax’s last film Holy Motors (2012) was about a Parisian actor’s yearning to escape the prison of identity. In Annette, Carax takes us into the heart of the nihilism that Henry spawns for himself. “You now have nobody to love,” the child tells him.
We meet Henry and Ann at the peak of their whirlwind romance. Every little event in their life is reported and dissected.
The cracks appear after their marriage. Ann is defined by passion and devotion to her art. Henry is uneasy with himself and that’s his fuel. When Annette is born, their relationship begins to implode.
Throughout the film, Ann is like an unalloyed presence. The tragedy of Annette’s inheritance becomes clear when Ann’s accompanist (Simon Helberg), who is besotted by Ann, tries to make Annette a show-stopper at an event. Carax sublimely takes down the exploitation of gifted children by thrusting them into performance and the spotlight.
Many terrible things happen in Annette. But it’s not monstrosity or evil that Carax wants us to remember. There are some movingly tender moments between the couple, but love is perhaps not enough. The inheritor of this Beauty and the Bastard legacy is the point – what lies ahead for Annette?
Cinematographer Caroline Champetier creates a luscious colour palette, with deep hues of green splattering the frames. Along with the production design and hypnotic music that ranges from pop to opera, the breathlessly paced film begins to resemble a lucid dream as the plot descends into the fantastical.
Although Marion Cottilard’s presence is ephemeral, her Ann’s spirit inhabits every frame. Adam Driver is the acting triumph of this enterprise. His booming delivery of the lyrics is the comic highlight as well as melancholic heart of Carax’s cautionary tale: “The truth is, I am sick. Being in love makes me sick.” The uneasiness lasts far longer than the audience can imagine.