The twisted dream landscape of Leos Carax’s “Annette”

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The silly-sublime rock opera is back. After the empty noise raised by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s In the heights (2021) and the postmodern musical trifles of Damien Chazelle (La La Land, 2016) and Edgar Wright (Baby driver, 2017), Annette signals the full return of the American musical to inspired maximalism and dreamlike logic. For that, we have to thank French director Leos Carax, who has worked for eight years with the bizarre-electro-pop duo Sparks (Ron and Russell Mael) on this beautifully curdled and joyless but brutally honest film. With Annette, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival on July 6, Sparks and Carax re-enacted the irritated state of American musical cinema by remembering Ken Russell’s best lessons (Savage Messiah, 1972, Tommy and Lizstomania, both in 1975). But, unlike Russell’s films, the slam-bang, camp trash isn’t what makes Annette unforgettable. Rather, it’s the grim, surreal way Carax explores issues of sex and power like Russell did: this time, fragile white men in positions of authority, abusers, toxic relationships, and tragic attachments.

Leos Carax, Annette, 2021, film still. Courtesy: Amazon Studios

Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry aka the Monkey of God: a “slightly offensive” stand-up comedic in Lenny Bruce’s villainous lore that unrealistically can still shock the faux-bobo residents of Silver Lake, Los Angeles. A self-centered monster you want to topple and crush, Driver’s Henry prowls around like a zoo leopard in long paintings as he walks in and out of Brechtian Sprechgesang, screaming in despair and an overly intense rage against the audience that catapulted him to glory: “Yes, yes, yes, laugh, laugh, laugh. What the fuck is you problem? ‘ Henry is dating Ann (Marion Cotillard), a doe-eyed soprano with a gentle demeanor and a red-haired pixie cut to the Jean Seberg. They shock the press and their relatives: “What does she see in him? To save the relationship, they conceive a child, Baby Annette: a little puppet, played by a literal puppet. After a series of tragedies, Henry and Ann’s relationship crumbles, and under the tutelage of an increasingly psychotic driver, their baby puppet becomes a global superstar.

Carax thanked Edgar Allen Poe in the credits, which made me wonder if he was aiming for his own entry into this long legacy of the grotesque that captured the romantic imagination of modernists dating back to the 19th century poetry of Charles Baudelaire. If so, he’s hit the nail on the head. Annette is one of the great disgruntled musicals, in the league of The weather is always good (1955), New York, New York (1977) and Pennies from the sky (1978). He has the edge over the above three in his spectacularly eccentric vanities: morbid green pools that look like they haven’t been cleaned in decades; a creepy title character ventrilocated in his movements; a dance removal, with the exception of Driver’s Random, Mocking drunk through a crowd of paparazzi. Often violently unpleasant to watch (two murders and a life of trauma inflicted on an exploited child do not please the crowd), Annette bow to a bizarre song-speech, openly dismissive of its audience’s embrace of social media narcissism. It’s the musical dream of a jaded psychoanalyst who wants his patient to kill the father and the mother – and who wants to live vicariously through these murders.

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Leos Carax, Annette, 2021, film still. Courtesy: Amazon Studios

Beyond its general strangeness, Annette is pretty blatant about the process by which children are transformed into extensions of their parents to be adored and loved by a network of fans. Henry turns Annette into a pop star show for most of her puppet life. But once she’s grown up – in a sudden five-minute burst of fury by five-year-old Devyn McDowell, who ranks with Beatrice Straight in Network (1976) and Penelope Allen in Scarecrow (1973) in terms of the extras roles that establish the emotional core of a film – Annette begins to doubt everything she has been taught. No longer a puppet, but in the flesh, Annette begins the long and tragic process that occupies most of our adult life: killing the masters who trained us.

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Leos Carax, Annette, 2021, film still. Courtesy: Amazon Studios

Annette is hard to like at first because he doesn’t want you to like him. Instead, it lodges itself in a soft, hidden place in the mind – a stubborn, ugly, horrible abscess. Annette is a polished disease, an anomaly, a sweep of atonal notes which, over time, reveal their charming, unique and magnificent construction.

Main picture: Léos Carax, Annette, 2021, film still. Courtesy: Amazon Studios


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