Year of release: 2021 Directed by Leos Carax. Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg.
After watching Annette, the two movies I’m most reminded of are The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Mulholland Drive. And if your taste in any way overlaps with mine, on the basis of that comparison and recommendation, you should drop everything and see Annette as soon as possible. Definitely do not read further until you’ve seen Annette, unless you do not care about spoilers.
I compared Annette to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Mulholland Drive, because Jacques Demy and David Lynch are the two artists whose work has the most similarities with Annette. Annette is an obvious spiritual and thematic successor to Demy in that it takes a story that cross-examines musical tropes while also magnificently and stunningly paying homage to said tropes. At the same time, it shows the dark underside of the world of performance, fame, and jealousy in a way that questions where the performance ends and where reality begins.
The blurring of the line between performance and reality starts with the opening scene. Director Leos Carax turns to the Mael brothers, the film’s composers, and says, “So may we start?” The brothers turn that into a riff, which in turn becomes a song, which in turn the cast and chorus join in as they transform into their characters.
Another stunning sequence shows the merging of the line between performance and reality as world renowned soprano Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard) is performing an opera. The backdrop of the set opens up to reveal an actual forest that she steps into before returning to the reality of the stage and its prop forest. The performance is both symbolic of a liberating, fantasy dimension and at the same time a constricting reality.
Ann’s relationship with standup comic Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) functions much in the same way. It is both an enthralling, passionate affair that fulfills both of them, and at the same time a dangerous clash of personalities and careers that constricts around them.
Driver is magnificently unlikable as Henry; it’s a testament to his acting abilities that he can make a character so repugnant and fascinating at the same time. His brooding demeanor perfectly captures Henry’s dangerous side. Even from the opening number as the actors transform into their characters, Driver’s expressions hint at the type of character he is going to play. The same can be said of Cotillard, who is sublime as his better half and shines like a ray of grace throughout the film beginning with that opening number.
The story functions much like a typical opera or musical love affair, with a central couple passionately in love and another party interested in ending that relationship. The third party here is Ann’s accompanist, later turned conductor, played by Simon Helberg. At least, the first half (or act) of the film functions that way. The second half is where the Lynchian nightmare, which had been simmering just under the surface, really takes hold.
Perhaps the strongest connection to Demy is that Annette asks the question what if the whirlwind romance of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg had worked out, and what if that was a tragedy that pushed the characters just ever so much further. That is the basis of the nightmare of the second half (act), and that is where the horror of fame, jealousy, and living vicariously through a performer really becomes apparent.
The relationship of the conductor does not become complicated with Ann as would be expected, but with Henry. After Henry kills Ann—on board a yacht, in a scene that is obviously staged on set and yet a dangerous portal to another fantasy realm—and exploits their daughter Annette for her miraculous voice, the conductor joins him in promoting Annette, and becomes convinced he is her father.
It should also be pointed out that Ann’s death recalls one of the most infamous celebrity deaths, Natalie Wood’s, which is yet another example of the fine line between performance and reality that Annette walks throughout its entire runtime.
If The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Mulholland Drive are the first two influences on Annette, then Gypsy is the third. As Henry exploits Annette, her status as a puppet becomes ever more apparent. And Annette is played by a disturbingly life-like puppet. First, she was on object of her mother’s affection, then an object for her father’s second career, and then an object of possession between two men who both want to claim her as belonging to them.
While it’s fairly obvious that Annette will transform into a real girl at some point, the moment at which she does is magnificent and better than anything I anticipated. Henry is finally in jail for two murders and the doll comes to visit him. As they begin conversing, a child (Devyn McDowell) walks from the back of the room to replace the puppet. On the one hand, this is another example of blurring the line between performance and reality. At the same time, it is the first instance of Annette exhibiting agency for herself. The shot of the doll left behind on the floor of the prison cell is a visually stunning commentary that Henry’s and Annette’s old lives are over.
The lyrics for that scene are magnificent. Henry insists he loves Annette, and she responds that he can’t love her. It is certainly true he will never be a father to her, and he made her life and her performances all about himself. For a story about white male mediocrity erupting into violence, the straightforward simpleness of a child’s rebuttal is more powerful than the justice that Henry is being served in prison.
Speaking of simpleness, all the lyrics of the Mael brothers are equally straightforward and repetitive. For instance, in the love duet Henry and Ann repeatedly sing, “We love each other so much,” and nothing else. All love duets in operas or musicals express that sentiment, but here the lyrics blatantly state it, thus exposing the mechanics of the song and purpose of any love duet. The magnificent opening number functions very similarly. “So may we start” becomes a refrain that acknowledges what is happening (the musical is starting), with the chorus echoing “may we” (mais oui). That is yet another brilliant example of performance blending with reality; it extends from the visuals to the actors to the lyrics.
Carax is more than up to walking that line with perfect balance, and he is aided by a phenomenal cast, and a phenomenal score by the Mael brothers (aka Sparks). It may seem strange that a Sondheim fanatic such as myself enjoyed lyrics this simple and repetitive, but they so perfectly contributed to the ever-present blurring of fantasy and reality that I thought it was a stroke of genius.
As to whether Henry is meant to be a great standup comic or a mediocre provocateur, I felt it was definitely the latter. His audiences clearly come to see “the Ape of God” because of his offensive schtick. Driver does a great job of connecting the insensitive and repellant nature of Henry’s “jokes” with his jealousy and violent tendencies. Even the lovemaking scenes between Henry and Ann contain some of those red flags as Henry tickles Ann against her will and later jokes about it.
How Henry and Ann came together and what they saw in each other is never addressed in the film. It’s also completely beside the point. Their relationship is riffing on the toxic relationships often found in operas and some musicals (e.g. Carousel). I believe the first opera Ann performs in is a fictitious opera that the Mael brothers wrote music for. However, we do see a billboard that she performed in Bluebeard’s Castle.
Bluebeard’s Castle is about a newly married bride who insists on opening all the doors to her husband’s castle against his will. As he implores her to stop, she discovers more horrors behind each door until it’s too late to leave. Warning signs are there for Ann all along. By the time she notices them, namely in the brilliantly filmed #MeToo dream sequence, it’s too late for her to leave as well. Like Bluebeard’s bride who is ultimately forced to stay in the castle forever, Ann becomes trapped in Henry’s world.
In an attempt to leave that world, Ann haunts Henry beyond her death. It’s implied she gives Annette her amazing voice, as if taking over a part of her child’s identity is the only way she can achieve justice for herself. This is another example of why Annette is played by a puppet, but also a tragic instance of one victim having to objectify someone else to survive. Henry’s toxic masculinity has more victims than just the two corpses.
Ultimately, everything has to come to an end: Annette as a puppet, Henry’s crimes, Ann’s revenge, their careers, the music, and the film itself. That happens once the illusion is shattered, and no performance can overcome the mistreatment of a child. It is quite possible that Carax decided to have Annette played by a puppet to avoid any exploitation of a child. Or it could have been another way of drawing attention to the mechanics of the performance itself and demanding the viewer suspend their disbelief. Either way, when McDowell enters for the final scene, Henry can no longer joke, Ann can no longer sing, and as Annette leaves the performance world behind, the music can no longer play.
The opening voice over forbids breathing throughout the show, and while it’s meant as a dark joke foreshadowing Henry’s offensive standup routine, it also is a fitting descriptor of the film, through which I sat enraptured for over two hours. And then, after the final scene which will easily be my favorite scene of any film this year, it’s time to stop watching and for the performances to end.
Personal recommendation: A+