Annette (2021)

Leos Carax | 2hr 19min

There is a glossy sheen to the bizarre, theatrical world that stand-up comedian Henry McHenry lives within, and yet by the end of Annette, Leos Carax raises the question of just how much its peculiar details are simply the warped perceptions of an egomaniac unable to confront a reality that doesn’t place himself at its centre. Carax is no stranger to pushing the conventions of narrative and good taste, and here he channels these fascinations into a movie musical swinging for the exact opposite of what more traditional representatives of the genre set out to achieve – using songs to repress emotions, rather than spilling them out into beautiful, lyrical expressions.

“We love each other so much,” is the phrase which Henry and Ann, his famed opera star wife, sing in mind-numbing repetition, as if they might convince themselves of its truth by attaching a melody to it. Later, Ann’s accompanist is relegated to singing “I’m an accompanist” in an effort to remind himself of his own subservient status, and when Henry’s mental state spirals into self-destructive habits, he is only fooling himself in repeating “I’m not that drunk.” These lyrics are contrived by design, typing out in heavy-handed text the straightforward ideas which each character is trying to manifest in their struggles against reality. In draining the emotional conviction from much his screenplay though, Carax also walks a tricky line he often stumbles along, at times failing to find the authenticity in moments which do finally call for it.

A ghost story emerges within this narrative, and along with it, Carax’s Gothic, expressionistic lighting.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard display immense restraint in playing these roles as awkward, contrived beings, incapable of expressing genuine emotions beyond those which they summon in a stand-up routine or opera performance. This disconnection only further manifests with the birth of their baby daughter who, in an eccentric, Caraxian twist, is played by a marionette, and appropriately named Annette. “This is my baby,” Henry tells himself, though once again his use of such plain language is just a weak attempt to force emotions which aren’t there. As Annette grows up and starts to display a prodigious talent, the pretence of the parent-child connection disappears, and instead Henry’s visualisation of her as a puppet informs the new relationship which forms between them – that of a manager and his exploited worker.

Green in the lighting at his stand-up performances, but also in the dressing gown he wears at every show, cloaking himself in his own envy.

In spite of the material success Henry finds along his path to fame, he still finds himself bogged down in the envy of others who possess something he lacks, and an ethereal green lighting setup emerges whenever those feelings surface. From the lamps sitting in the audience of a stand-up show, to the pool set piece where his jealousy pushes him to the edge of sanity, it follows him like a ghost, haunting him with reminders of his own corruption and mediocrity.

And indeed, much of Annette plays like a ghost story, as Carax relishes the opportunity to play into the theatrical, Gothic expressionism of his imagery. A recurring emphasis on Henry’s hands stretching towards Ann from behind isolates them from the rest of his body, giving the sinister impression of a soulless, zombie-like creature reaching out for its prey. Meanwhile, as Henry stews in his resentment towards her, she finds herself surrounded by clean, blue hues, especially in her opera performances where she finds far more critical success than her partner.

Anne swathed in blues, from the lighting to the production design.

These motifs come to a head atop a rocking boat on a dark, stormy ocean, where Henry’s disembodied hands lead into an intensely confrontational waltz between the two spouses. The artifice of this soundstage is evident, as waves crash in slow-motion on a rear projected backdrop, and real water is simultaneously splashed up at them from below. Though the film sometimes plays a little too heavily on its inexpressive lyrics, Carax’s commitment to the disorientating effects of Annette beautifully isolates the theatrical hubris in the bitter, selfish ambition of Henry McHenry, who is only allowed to escape that spotlight when it is already far too late to repair the rest of his life.

A disorientating waltz against a dark, stormy backdrop.

Annette is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

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