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'Annette': Can a Film Ever be Too Strange for its Own Good?

Adam Driver (left) stars as Henry McHenry and Marion Cotillard (right) stars as Ann Defrasnoux in "Annette" (2021), directed by Leos Carax.
Adam Driver (left) stars as Henry McHenry and Marion Cotillard (right) stars as Ann Defrasnoux in "Annette" (2021), directed by Leos Carax. By Courtesy of Amazon Studios
By Lanz Aaron G. Tan, Crimson Staff Writer

“Annette” is a film that, logically, shouldn’t exist. And yet, here it is, willed into its oddball existence by French filmmaker Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”). The rock-opera musical follows a celebrity couple — stand-up comedian Henry (Adam Driver) and opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard) — as they birth a magical wooden doll for a daughter.

As one might expect, much has been made about the strangeness in “Annette,” and rightfully so. Carax builds a world where even the peripheral characters sing in a disturbing chorus, prancing around the screen like marionettes. That absurdity includes everything from doctors singing as they deliver a baby to Driver and Cotillard crooning during oral sex. Suffice to say, it’s a film full of off-kilter choices, but also one that's strangely alluring — an open invitation into a raucous, surreal world that promises something new.

Part of that novelty is how seamlessly Carax shifts between genres: He takes “Annette” from an abrasive melodrama about self-destructive ego into a surprising thriller with fantasy-horror undercurrents. But in many ways, “Annette” also feels like cinema about cinema with its fourth-wall-breaking opening number, backstage star-crossed drama, and running commentary on modern celebrity culture. All that is to say "Annette" revels in its self-awareness; Carax doesn’t just delight in his film's absurdity — he constantly draws our attention to it.

César-winning cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who collaborated with Carax on “Holy Motors,” helps craft the film’s absurd visual identity with a luscious color palette, splattered across the frames in deep saturated shades of green. It’s a bold look for the film, catapulting viewers into an experience that feels like a lucid dream. The vibrant colors combined with the indulgent production design also manage to adapt with the film — as the plot descends further and further into the fantastical, so do the film’s visuals.

Even the music feels new and out of the box. “Annette” was first imagined as a sung-through show by the Sparks Brothers (the subject of Edgar Wright’s new documentary feature). The Sparks’ genre-bending music takes “Annette” in interesting directions — from operetta to pop and back again. As with the rest of the film, many of the songs are meant to be jarring: an ode to things that are impossible to love. But the results can be hit-or-miss. The rhythmic, repetitive lyrics are often hypnotic, but can at times be frustrating. Driver and Cotillard sang live on-set, which is more ambitious than recording in a booth. But neither are professionals, a fact that’s unfortunately quite noticeable for Cotillard, whose opera vocals were dubbed over.

Watching as all of these deftly crafted components meld together, one can’t help but be reminded that they are mere spectators on the outside looking in, never truly living in the film’s world. It’s as if the film’s aggressive self-awareness, which so proudly takes center stage, adds a barrier of emotional separation. But this could be exactly what Carax wanted. For instance, his widely acclaimed film “Holy Motors” was arguably a success because it basked in the glory of its own strangeness. It didn’t care how unconventional it was or how difficult it might be for audiences to watch. It was a film that didn’t want to be loved.

But, unlike “Holy Motors,” “Annette” wants to have its cake and eat it too. Far from a series of strange episodic vignettes, “Annette” tells a story that asks us to care about its characters, or at least care about what happens to them. As the catalyst and emotional core of the film, Adam Driver gives Henry a powerful and domineering onscreen presence. But the intentionally strange, almost artificial barriers Carax sets up makes it difficult to care about Henry’s fate — even in the conclusion. There’s something amiss here, and unlike many of the odd creative choices throughout “Annette,” this identity crisis doesn’t feel like it was intended. As a result, Carax’s latest ends up being a quirky, abrasive slow-burn with sentimentality that often falls short.

There’s no denying that “Annette” is a beautifully-made film, and despite its lackluster ending, it still crackles with the escapist electricity that we've been missing from cinemas. While it seems destined for a divisive reaction, there’s one thing for sure: You probably have not — and will never again see — a film quite like this.

—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at lanzaaron.tan@thecrimson.com and on twitter @LanzAaronGTan1.

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