Two lawless lovers prance about the trees, melodically declaring their deepest affections. The woman, a free spirit in a flowing skirt, tilts her cheekbones toward the horizon; the man, a consummate bad boy, delays a drag on his cigarette just long enough to express his amour. “We love each other so much …,” they sing in English; “I’m overjoyed every morning …,” they sing in French. The pair aren’t trained, professional singers, and the vocals seem to have been recorded live. The exchange feels at once spontaneous and earnest, tender and over-the-top.
That the above describes a scene from Leos Carax’s 2021 Annette or Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 Pierrot Le Fou betrays the extent to which the raucous rock opera recently released by Amazon Studios is indebted to the French New Wave romantic caper. Whether deliberating on lucky palm lines on the coast of France or strolling the hills of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, hand-in-hand, the pair could be Marianne (Anna Karina) and Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) of Pierrot or Ann (Marion Cotillard) and Henry (Adam Driver) of Annette — so defiant is their union, so reckless their infatuation. “We’re scoffing at logic, this wasn’t the plan,” reflects Henry, an unruly stand-up comic, on a hike with his opera-singing sweetheart. In Pierrot, the love affair is even more insurgent: a wealthy society man absconds with his anarchic babysitter. “I never thought I’d always want you,” sings Godard’s Marianne to her philandering beau, between bites of jam and brioche. “We never thought we could live together and not grow tired of one another.”
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If Godard hijacked the big-budget Hollywood musical for anti-bourgeois ends, Carax has careened headlong into the lunacy of La-La Land, in thrall to its visual excess and at odds with its narrative orthodoxy. “I’m not a storyteller,” he told Beatrice Loayza in a recent interview for the New York Times. “I try to compose emotional scores, like movements that flow into minor and major keys.”
Carax’s first English-language movie to date, with music and lyrics written by Russell and Ron Mael of the pop duo Sparks, Annette wears its indie cred on its half-Gallic sleeve, by turns embracing and rejecting the trappings of the big musical genre. “Counterintuitive, baby,” Ann and Henry croon, speeding, helmetless, on a motorcycle to their bucolic modern home. “Speak soft when you say it,” sings Ann, clutching her breasts, as Henry performs cunnilingus to the beat.
Loud or soft (but more often loud), the buoyant irreverence of Annette’s first act is an utter boon to the soul. The opening number, “So May We Start,” bursts with self-referentiality, the director, lead actors, and Sparks marching through Santa Monica, trailed by four back-up singers (each merrily donning an emerald negligee). “So, close all the doors and let’s begin the show,” sing Cotillard and Driver, swapping out their outerwear for their costumes. “The exits are clearly marked, thought you should know.”
Some in the audience may very well benefit from such reminders; popular and critical response to Annette has so far been very divided. The Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson dismissed the score as “dialogue set to unhummable melodies,” and the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney dubbed the film “stubbornly flat … a strange and discordant creation.” Meanwhile, Eric Kohn of IndieWire praised the movie as a “mind-blowing musical fantasia … [that] doesn’t just take your breath away, [but] keeps your breath hostage until the credits roll.” Indeed, it would be surprising not to have a strong reaction to a film named for a singing baby played by a wooden puppet. That this choice is hardly the film’s weirdest, or most disturbing, is telling — and totally on par with the filmmaker’s reputation.
Anyone familiar with Carax’s oeuvre (most recently, 2011’s dizzying Holy Motors) knows that, at his best, the director’s output is unabashedly absurd and purposefully preposterous. No one expecting a fulfilling love story set to song is likely to be satisfied by Annette, nor will anyone anticipating remotely relatable characters (or characters consistently made of flesh and blood). “If you’re going to make a musical, you’ve got to be either ambitious or pretentious,” Carax told Loayza.
Truly, part of the trouble in assessing Annette is untangling the one from the other. In aiming for emotional gravity in the second half, the director ultimately dilutes the joy to be found in the first. Contrast an early scene in which a trio of wide-eyed delivery nurses hilariously coach Ann to “Breath in, breathe out, breathe in!” as she gives birth to a scene just 20 minutes later of Henry relentlessly asking, “What’s your problem? What’s your fucking problem?” when his act in Vegas goes suddenly awry, or, 30 minutes after that, a scene in which Henry repeatedly asks, “Is it really happening?” when his infant daughter displays her musical gifts (yes, it is really happening). Where Sparks’s initial lyricism might read as playfully direct, by the second act the verses are positively redundant, Ann and Henry recounting their every whim as literally as possible. In the absence of the levity defining the film’s launch, what follows can feels like sputtering melodrama.
It is tempting to view any stunningly unsettling film as inherently brilliant, as though strangeness itself is the signature of creative genius. And while certainly great art often disquiets, what disquiets does not necessarily make for great art. Is Annette then a great film for its extreme peculiarity, its glorious exorcism of cinematic convention, or is it a failed experiment in affective and aesthetic registers, whose emotional incoherency and plodding plotline cannot be saved by its self-awareness?
The answer, of course, is at once yes and no to both. “Tender and cruel, real and surreal, shocking and mocking, nocturnal and diurnal, usual and unusual,” read lines of a “little poem” that Marianne has written about her beloved Ferdinand in Pierrot Le Fou. The same string of binaries could describe Driver’s Henry, so wracked is he with contradictory impulses — or Annette as a whole, for that matter. But while Ferdinand becomes “Pierrot le Fou,” a foolish clown, by the film’s end, Henry’s power, and cruelty, are never exactly critiqued in Annette, leaving us to wonder whether we are meant to mourn or cheer his downfall.
“Now you have nothing to love …” becomes the refrain in Annette’s heavy-handed final scene, and, as much as I really wanted to love this movie, the line struck quite a (puppet?) chord. Revisiting in 2007 his 1968 review of Pierrot, Roger Ebert also second-guessed his first impressions: “[W]hile I once wrote of it as ‘Godard’s most virtuoso display of his mastery of Hollywood genres,’ I now see it more as the story of silly characters who have seen too many Hollywood movies.” It remains to be seen whether future critics will see Annette as contrarian triumph or empty provocation.
Annette is currently in theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime.