Mr. Leos Carax’s 2012 outing, Holy Motors, is the best movie of that decade. As art culture moved closer to meritocracy than ever before, the Venn diagram of creators and consumers viably becoming a perfect circle, Holy Motors both reveres and reviles the new world of instant entertainment access.
In it, Denis Lavant’s character Oscar is an actor. Every day he assumes numerous roles, performing for no-one and everyone simultaneously, grieving the bygone totality of it all. The camera, the audience, the guarantees. Oscar’s more thoughtful moments are so coherent amongst the rest of the film’s chaotic vignettes and ‘gigs’, he often seems inseparable from the director himself (‘Leos Carax’ being an anagram of given name ‘Alex’, and ‘Oscar’ no longer an anecdote, but a read).
READ MORE: Candyman (2021) – Film Review
Long story short, it is very much Carax’s nature to prod at the state of popular culture whenever he arises. Sometimes with a salute, sometimes satire, often both. He seamlessly makes it feel like he’s just plonked a mirror in front of whatever it is he’s discussing. It really is all this ridiculous, and he’ll convince you. To describe him as a surrealist is just pointing the finger back. You get the feeling when all’s said and done, someone has to be wrong.
His debut English-language project exists in a similar vein; once again, our protagonists occupy mediums thought to be dying. The musical epic follows Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) through the birth and beyond of their first child, the titular gifted baby, Annette. Henry is a cynic comedian, drinking and smoking his way through latest routine “The Ape of God” in a lime green bathrobe. Ann is a talented soprano singer, “dying and bowing” in Henry’s words, in celebrated stage drama “The Forest”. The two have this exemplary Tinseltown relationship, one constantly documented (as they are) by every light entertainment output. There’s a lot of pressure to be perfect, to survive insane expectations, and continue their jobs as normal.
The writing/composing Sparks Brothers (of recent Edgar Wright documentary fame) opt for the Tom Hooper/Les Miserables approach to near-total musicality. “95% of all dialogue is in song” is the stat that’s been making the rounds, and that’s not hyperbole. A deterrent to some, I’m sure, but if approaching this blind, probably the least of one’s concerns. There’s an impregnable, purist cinematic mentality in the film’s DNA. It’s a film theorists dream, and potentially a popcorn audience’s nightmare. This will divide.
Opening track ‘So May We Start?’, released ahead of the film, is sort of a blurb of tone. We’re told “the authors are here and they’re a little vain”, and it’s easy to hear a thin attempt to absolve the sins of coming pretentiousness with a glimmer of self awareness. By “Ladies and gents, please, shut up and sit”, you realise it was never an apology, it was a content warning. You’re asked to ponder if the stage is outside or within, and that’s the first and last flash of guidance.
Carax favours visual language, allegory, metaphor; operating a few yards away from the literal at any time. There’s a lot of line-straddling to ensure you are suggested to, not outright told or led. You’re presented with anomalies unlikely to be real, but not impossible within internal context. It’s as if he conflates convention with laziness; constantly trying to outpace it, lose it somewhere. Annette, like Holy Motors, feels as if slipping through fragmented dreams. Despite this, it’s surprisingly cohesive in a way that pictures this ambitious rarely are. The deployment of his cinematic tools is no mistake; this film is a bunch of things but coincidental is not one of them. He establishes rules only ever to defiantly bend or break them. You often get the idea Carax is his own ideal audience. That doesn’t make this unwatchable, like it could; rather fascinating to continue following further and further down.
Annette is given a lot of wiggle room by its stellar batch of performances. Driver is brilliant as always: his Henry a fiery, vitriolic, centre-of-the-universe type. Cotillard submits some of the run-time’s most believable moments with her expressions alone; it’s basically a bonus she’s at the centre of most of the big musical numbers. Speaking of: Catherine Trottmann (Cotillard’s voice double) adds a great deal to those sequences. That soprano tone is almost its own character. Finally, The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg (the sympathetic ‘Accompanist’) pleasantly surprised me every time he was on screen. An unusual casting choice, and a demonstrably brilliant one. Excited to see him pop up more.
The only problems I had, barring the most indulgent habits of Carax, were with the slightly lopsided soundtrack. I have never wanted to physically pull a memory from my brain a-la-Dumbledore more so than with mushy clanger ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which is as subtle as a fork in the eye. Seriously? This is the one time laziness really should’ve been run from a bit quicker. It also doesn’t help that it’s UNBELIEVABLY catchy. Everything else is passable at worst and great at the top end, but where they sit over the film can be a different tale. Some tracks didn’t feel big enough for what was on screen, and other times the problem was inverse. Grain of salt here: I’m not the most seasoned veteran of the genre, so admittedly I might be missing an explainer, reference or trope. No idea.
READ MORE: Dune (1984) – Blu-ray Review
It’s wild to get 800 words into a review, wanting another 800, and still not really knowing up from down. Annette has a lot to enjoy, some truly memorable scenes and a replay-ability seldom found (I watched it three times in a day). This said, I still feel lost, still recovering, processing. I haven’t yet stopped thinking about it – considering its messages, characters, and commitment to full-package bizarro delivery. That must be a positive thing.
I’d posit that it scores purely for being a work of voice, of vision; a far cry from Hollywood homogeny. Whether it hinges on those freedoms a little too much is up to you to unpack (and good luck!). Either way, you’re going to have an opinion on this. This is easily the most unique film you’ll see for the rest of the year.
Annette is out in Cinemas on 3rd September and will be available exclusively on MUBI from 26th November .