What a roller coaster ride it has been doing an Adam Driver marathon of sort. I had just watched four of his films last month for the Hidden Gems series, which I had decided before I got a press screening for ANNETTE last week. Well in a way, the absolute bizarrity of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ends up serving as a pre-req for Annette. It’s interesting that before the film starts, we’ve got a VO of its director Leos Carax telling the audience to hold our breath until the end of the movie. Well, there were a few times I did hold my breath watching this movie.
It’s been four days since I saw it and let’s just say I’m still recovering from it, ahah. I guess nothing could really prepare you for this rock opera written by the Sparks Brothers. Ok now, even that info alone should tell you this isn’t a movie you watch for its strong narrative. Its primary strengths are its visual style and the catchy songs. I LOVE So May We Start in its opening sequence, starting with Carax and the Sparks with their band in a studio, then they step out the room, meeting the main actors of the movie and the entire group sing the song together as they walk out into the street. That’s such a surreal scene unlike anything I’ve ever seen, which is what you could say about the entire movie.
We’ve fashioned a world, a world built just for you
A tale of songs and fury with no taboo
We’ll sing and die for you, yes, in minor keys
And if you want us to kill too we may agree
That’s just some of the lyrics from the opening song… so don’t say the filmmakers didn’t warn you. When it first came out in Cannes, Twitter was set alight by critics describing a character performing cunnilingus while singing a love song. Well believe it or not, it’s actually NOT the most bizarre thing in this movie.
The basic plot is that we’ve got a celebrity couple, a stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Driver) and an opera singer Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard) who falls head over heels in love. Their career trajectory changes course as the film progresses and the birth of their daughter turns their lives into a tailspin. The film’s title is named after their daughter who has a special gift… I’m not going to spoil it for you what her gift is, but what’s quite unnerving to behold is Carax chose to use a puppet for the baby. For someone with a strong aversion for dolls/puppets in general, it took me a while to adjust to that fact, but thankfully there are plenty of things to distract me from it, most notably Adam Driver’s tour de force performance.
In my post about Annette here, some critics talked about Driver’s towering, imposing physicality being used to great effect in this film. That turns out to be absolutely true. Though billed as a bizarre love story, this is pretty much an Adam Driver show from start to finish and he capably carries this film on his strong shoulders. Carax is known for his grand but strange vision for his films and Driver is willing to match his insane cinematic choices, which I shouldn’t be surprised given he did exactly that for Terry Gilliam. As Henry, his dry sense of humor, sheer rage, magnetic charisma and intensity are in full display here, at times in extreme close-ups. His character preps with boxing regimen in his hooded robe which is quite strange for a comedian, but perhaps that explains why his acts are so militant and physical. Most people have seen how intense he could be as Kylo Ren in the Star Wars trilogy, but given he’s under a mask for most of the trilogy, I feel like you’re robbed off just how insane he’s willing to go for a role.
Annette feels more like an experimental film at times, but it also feels personal in its depiction of love and loss. I find it hard for me to delve into this film’s plot as even after days watching it, I can’t quite put a finger on it what it’s about. Driver’s Henry–nicknamed ‘the ape of God’– is such a provocative performer who depicts the quintessential toxic masculinity, complete with a Me-Too chorus of women accusing him of various misbehaviors. But even from his stand-up acts where he doesn’t so much deliver jokes but throw lines at the audience to react to, it’s clear he’s got issues. Though both Henry and Ann are performers, the stark difference is that Henry seems to put a lot of himself into his show while Cotillard’s Ann is the opposite. She wears a wig when portraying a larger-than-life persona in her play where she dies at the end of each show. The theme of death ends up spilling over from their stage persona into real life… well, as ‘real’ as it seems in this film given the blurred line between fantasy and reality.
Despite Driver’s long screen time in the movie (he’s pretty much on screen at least 95% of the time), I don’t really get his character. I’m not sure the filmmakers intend it to be a character study, but at least Driver has an arc as Cotillard’s and Simon Helberg’s the conductor character barely has any. Both have their moments in the movie, but for the most part I feel like their characters are only there to move Henry’s story forward. It’s quite frustrating and such a pity given how talented both actors are. Heck, what living breathing performers want to be upstaged by a puppet baby? Yet that’s what happens here, especially the huge scene towards the end that made me gasp. The ending is as puzzling as ever as it feels anticlimactic. My friend sitting next to me raises both hands as the screen turns to black and said ‘that’s it?!’ Perhaps the filmmakers intend things to be one big giant puzzle, but perhaps they just didn’t know how to end the film.
In terms of visuals, Annette is gorgeous to look at, shot by French DP Caroline Champetier, it has a neon green/blue tone similar to Holy Motors that she also shot. As to be expected in a musical, the songs are memorable and have such an infectious energy to them. So May We Start and We Love Each Other So Much are still stuck in my head to this day. One thing for sure though, the film’s sheer grandiosity, extreme absurdity and off-kilter sensibilities will likely make this one of the most divisive movies of recent memory. Like Holy Motors, Carax’s distinctive styles are not for everyone. It’s long running time (140 minutes) and odd pacing also doesn’t make this the easiest film to recommend to others.
For me personally, despite some of my biggest quibbles, I had a good time with it. I feel like I don’t have to fully understand something to appreciate it. Just like an art in a museum/gallery, I often have no clue what it means or why it’s constructed in such a way, but it can still be absolutely mesmerizing.