Few films of recent memory have been as visually abstract and wavering in their focus as Leos Carax’s Annette (2021). It’s one of those films that leans into art-house conventions of filmmaking and asks its audience to latch onto them for dear life as the film zig-zags through a minefield of ideas, set pieces, and oddness to provide an experience unlike any other in 2021.
So where does one start with a film that is more interested in keeping its audience guessing than providing them with a clear cut narrative? Well for starters, Annette unfolds in an operatic-like showcase that echoes early French Avant-Garde filmmaking (particularly that of Jacques Demy whose influence is definitely felt). For instance, dialogue is often sung throughout the film, scenes are choreographed to play out like live theatre, and there is a particular emphasis on the unnaturalness of how the actors move through space and time.
With a screenplay by the Mael brothers (Sparks Brothers) and Carax, Annette is never short on surprises and wackiness as it leans into a romantic-fantasy-musical akin to what I can best describe as Beauty and the Beast (1991) meets A Star Is Born (2018).
At its core though, the premise of the film is a relatively simple one revolving around romance and the struggles of stardom. Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) are both performers — a comedian and soprano, respectively. As with most celebrities, their life and personal affairs cannot escape the public eye, and Henry becomes more agitated and narcissistic as the film progresses, while Ann gradually begins to pull back and become somewhat of a muse. This is particularly true for both characters as they welcome their baby daughter Annette, into the world.
Annette herself is presented in puppet form which raises interesting ideas pertaining to artifice, especially when it comes to how Henry and Ann see the world around them. Both characters seemingly awaken following Annette’s birth in that they realise the life they have been living up until now has all been a farce so as to maintain the illusion of contentedness. Annette’s presence sees that illusion be torn down as the film spirals into a hodgepodge of visual cues, symbols and motifs that are really difficult to grapple with (oh and did I mention Annette is gifted with an incredible musical voice?).
The music of the film is also a big reason for why its zaniness works — perhaps because it was conjured up by the equally zany Sparks Brothers. With lyrics that penetrate and carry over between each set piece (especially “We Love Each Other So Much”) Carax is able to nurse the film into a level of tenderness that becomes crucial to living up to the films tragic finale. The repetition of music and lyrics has a level of sadness that brings to light the illusory truth effect where, the more something is repeated, the more likely it is an individual will believe it to be true.
But for Henry and Ann, there is a level of truth to their repetition no matter how much it seems to divide them. Carax makes this apparent by intertwining the aforementioned lyrics into very physical actions and events (i.e. Henry performing oral sex on Ann, Ann giving birth while those in the birth theatre sing). In this sense, Henry and Ann aren’t repeating for the sake of wanting to believe that they love each other, rather, as Henry lyrically asserts to Ann’s former partner The Conductor (Simon Helberg), “that song was our song”. In the same way, that love was their love — it was born out of truth and remained so, even as Henry continued to descend into a deeper low (which I won’t spoil).
The film isn’t without its shortcomings though. Carax is less interested in drawing an emotional response from audiences due to the lack of avenues from which to draw that response (at least for the first two acts), and is instead interested in using symbols and motifs (Annette in her puppet state, Ann’s distinct vocal pattern etc.) to build up the audiences understanding of events. For most of the second act, the film relies on these cues to give some sort of structure and direction to an otherwise unruly narrative. Sure, fans of Carax will band together to point out that Carax’s style is less about narrative coherency as it is about using the affordances of the medium in a Lynchian fashion, but it’s an absence, nonetheless.
Most of Annette relies on the audiences desire to be in equal parts submissive to the subversive form of the film, and to experience the film through its wandering structure. It’s a unique experience that can often feel exhausting which I have no doubt is intentional as Henry and Ann’s relationship is an exhausting one, but it’s worth taking the ride.
Annette is currently screening in select cinemas, and on Palace Home Cinema