At first, the intensity of the departure of Annette, director Leos Carax’s newest film, from his other works threatened to be too much for me, threatened to taint the overall experience. A shift of language, of approach, of style and of genre seemed too much for even a director as great as Carax to juggle… and yet, Annette is against all odds yet another absolutely towering work of his.
Starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in its leading roles as a celebrity couple (Driver plays Henry McHenry, a controversial stand-up comic, Cotillard plays Ann Defrasnoux, an opera singer/actor), Annette details the birth of the titular Annette to the formerly mentioned couple, a girl born with a gift in spite of the pressures that her life is experiencing.
With music by Sparks, all seemed green-lit for a joyous film, full of Carax’s typical ecstatic movement (usually coming from Denis Lavant – I was admittedly very skeptical of Driver going into this) and his usual pop-based flourishes. Instead, Annette flips the expectations on their head entirely, instead opting to be a cinematic remix of many classic tragedies, of many operas and silent films, pushed through an expressionistic lens that is frequently visually similar to films like Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Sunrise.
In this case, suddenly Driver’s physical appearance becomes excellent. The massive scale of his physical presence, his deep voice and his dedication to his performance, which may be the best he has given to date, makes Driver crucial to what this film is aiming for. The repetition of the songs, often only a few lines at a time being delivered, becomes not laziness but opera – the film becomes a tragedy, not so much a musical as was seemingly promised, or suggested at least.
The grimness of the film was not to be expected either: the links to Macbeth, to the Theban plays, etc. all give the film a certain blood-splattered outline that sets the stage before the darkness of what is to come becomes too apparent. The editing, stacked with stylistic superimpositions a la David Lynch (Mulholland Dr. in particular), also lends itself to classic silent cinema with Carax replicating many pieces of history with his expressionistic performances and sets, his painted backdrops and his operatic sensibility.
The surrealism involved allows that sense of cinema that few films will allow themselves to give: the opening musical scene which tells the audience to “please shut up” and take their seats, the frequent appearance of the Sparks brothers as characters and, of course, the consistent bursting into song all call attention to the filmmaking, making for a refreshing change of pace in comparison to the majority of other films.
Its a damn near perfect film, down to the casting and the camera movements. An unbelievable triumph of filmmaking that juggled high art, classical tragedy and an easily digestible love story. A film full of dazzling cinematography, gorgeous colours, phenomenal performances and wonderfully oddball nuances. Carax doesn’t just make the landing overseas with his first American film, he becomes a part of it with his contemporary film-opera masterwork.