“Counterintuitive, baby,” Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard sing to each other early on in Leos Carax’s latest Annette – and indeed it is. As with every good musical, there’s a grasp of the magnificent ridiculousness of the whole conceit. A full joyful embrace of the freedom and the rigours of the form, “We’re scoffing at logic,” they sing in a frank admission that the plot’s credibility might not be the highest priority.
Driver plays Henry, a shock jock comic who likes to lay stress on the idea of killing the audience. Cotillard is Ann, an opera singer who dies every night to the thunderous applause of her fans and the quiet adoration of her conductor (Simon Helberg). Ann and Henry’s love affair is idyllic in the same way that Eden hints at imminent expulsion and indeed dangers lurk in dreams, wolves howling in the forest and forests burning on the news. The delight is in the audacity and surprise of the film and so let’s go light on the synopsis and suffice it to add that a child is born to the couple (the ‘Annette’ of the title).
Carax has always had a superb feel for the use of music – see Denis Lavant dancing down a Paris street to the sound of David Bowie in Mauvais Sang – but here he excels himself. It doesn’t hurt that the music is provided by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, also known as Sparks, who with this and Edgar Wright’s documentary are having a hell of a 2021. The tunes are incredibly strong and have a catchiness that gives an immediate dejavu recognisability. Starting in a studio, the first number Now May We Start has the musicians and cast walking out of the studio and into the street. There’s an exhilarating cheekiness and wit to the songs – “The authors are very vain” – which earns the deeper moments to come.
Driver gives an astonishing performance as a man whose entitlement and rage make him unfit for the love he feels. It is a rich and deeply unflattering portrait which matches Marriage Story in its intensity and confirms Driver – if any more confirmation was needed – as the most versatile and powerful American actor working today. Cotillard has a less arduous task and indeed her character could be considered somewhat bland if it wasn’t for Cotillard’s charisma and a clear soprano voice. A late scene stealer, the young Devyn McDowell, almost walks away with the movie as Annette.
The go-to comparisons are probably going to be Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (though James Bobin’s The Muppets also springs to mind). It has the excitement of one and a dollop of the obsidian darkness of the other. And yet it is also very much its own wild thing. Carax and his collaborators are clever romantics. His intelligence pushes the film towards self-deprecation and irony – the film opens with a public service announcement not to breathe during the film – but there’s the aching need for love and something more.
There’s emotion here beyond the solipsistic self-pity of someone like Charlie Kaufman. Can you be romantic without being soppy? Can you be ironic without being cynical? Can you look up at the moon and into the abyss? Or do you have to choose? Caroline Champetier’s cinematography matches these drives, draping the meta impulses in some old fashioned movie beauty which lends the picture a fittingly operatic grandeur. As with Carax’s last film Holy Motors, Annette has and will divide audiences. It is the classic five or one star film and making a judgement feels also like an admission or a declaration. So be it.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty