Directed by Leos Carax, “Annette” is an unusually straightforward story, simple in outline, that relies on its filmmaker’s command of the most advanced techniques to capture, and hold, our attention. And one other thing: all of the characters sing their dialogue. It was conceived as a rock-opera by the British brothers duo Sparks – Russell and Ron Mael – reminiscent of the Who’s Tommy. But it is psychologically richer, and darker, much darker, than that story. Yet, with a screenplay by the Maels and Carax, it held me for its two-and-a-quarter hour length.
The two stars are Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, although it is essentially Driver’s story, with Cotillard placed in the background, often uneasily. Driver plays Henry McHenry, a hugely popular comedian whose base is Santa Monica, California. His concerts are large, wild affairs, with thousands in rapt appreciation. Cotillard is Ann, a beautiful soprano superstar. In an early scene, Henry announces his engagement to Ann at a concert, and his fans are delirious.
That first concert scene prefigures the development of the entire film; it is startling and powerful, establishing Driver’s total and thrilling dominance of his character. For Henry is a tortured and miserable artist, in spite of his immense popularity, and his routine displays his overwhelming contempt for his fans. With four beautiful backup girls, he commands his audience to laugh on cue, and it complies joyfully.
After the concert, Henry speeds on his motorbike to Ann’s own performance at the opera. They embrace before a throng of reporters holding mics and cameras. Ann then asks him how his performance went. “I killed then”, he answers, and to the same question from him, Ann answers “I saved them.”
So that’s all you need to know. By then, the audience has been cued that the film is Henry’s story, not Ann’s, and that Henry is apt to demonstrate why the term “killed” is appropriate for him. We know the story arc now, and the question is whether we’re the kind of audience who wants that.
I certainly am, and the film kept that part of its promise. Driver is unforgettable. He knew this is one of the parts that can turn an actor into a “legend”, and he plays it that way. It is a very physical performance, especially in the concert scenes. He twists and contorts his long body during his act with seeming effortlessness. It reminds one of Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, grace that is ungainly, but still beautiful. And yet – and I think this is intentional – his act isn’t very funny. He performs to challenge the audience, to dare them to be entertained. Their laughter is more an act of obedience.
Later, after rumors of sexual violence are made public, they are pulled out of the spell. Catcalls from the audience interrupt him. In one brilliant routine – the only time Driver made me laugh, in fact – he tells the audience that he has just killed Ann…by tickling her to death. It is bizarre because we had seen him tickle her earlier, lovingly, in bed. Lying on his back onstage, he re-enacts the fictional scene, professing his tremendous guilt, which prompted him to try suicide by the same method. Unsurprisingly, the audience is outraged, and screams at their former idol.
Those concert scenes are the most memorable in the film. At least until the final scene, a tremendously risky move that pays off dramatically, even if it leaves a sour taste.
Once Henry’s career goes downward, the film’s grim undertone dominates to the end. Ann gives birth to a daughter, Annette, who Henry becomes obsessed with immediately. But, in the film’s most original touch, Annette is portrayed by a doll which is moved mechanically to simulate human actions. All the actors respond to her as if she were human; something we cannot do. Then, after Ann dies from drowning in a storm, the film focuses only on Henry’s attempt to control every aspect of Annette’s life, including the exploitation of her astonishing singing ability, even before the child has learned to speak. Partnering with a young conductor, who had been Ann’s accompanist, he takes the child on an international singing tour, where she is beloved by millions.
Part of the tension is in accepting Annette, a mechanical doll, as a human character. Also challenging is that she is a near silent toddler throughout most of the film. For Annette doesn’t speak, she barely reacts to her surroundings at all. Yet the child seems very alert to what happens around her; only without emotion. Until the devastating finale.
At this point, something should be said about the singing. It adds nothing. Nor does it detract. Except for Cotillard’s opera solos, the actors do it themselves, without strain. But the characters are so one-dimensional, and the presentation so stylized, that we accept it almost with a shrug. I mean, some films tell us outright that the world we’re seeing is artificial, and this allows an extra dimension of enjoyment. So think of this: what if a famous fantasy film, say, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, were exactly the same except that all of the actors sang their dialogue. Just like in Annette. I, for one, don’t think it would really make much difference. Just as I could accept and appreciate Annette if nobody sang at all. Its that kind of story.
But this film has a different problem. However powerful its climactic scene, the impact is lessened by the fact that Henry has become unsavory to us. Nothing is really added to the “self-destructive genius” template we’re already too familiar with, not even by Driver’s artistry. When Henry goes to a disco one night, he is depressed by the many beautiful women who are ready to sleep with him, when he sees nothing in himself that isn’t loathsome. Unable to feel love at all, much less for himself, he is diabolically driven to destroy whatever love others feel for him.
In sum, just another self-destructive genius story. And yet- spoiler here! – the trick of seeing Annette in human form, by the exquisite Devyn McDowell, is dramatically valid, and does add an emotional dimension. For, while Henry’s downfall is never tragic, he becomes truly pitiful when we see that there was only one person’s love he ever wanted, which he had to destroy like the others.