It's hard sometimes to fathom the depths of the creative mind. Artistic endeavours are an engagement with practical skill and ephemeral self-interrogation, making the physiological landscape of an artist a kind of subconscious wonderland filled with magic and horrors. This psychological landscape is the playground for Leos Carax's 'Annette', a work of cinematic opera composed by acclaimed American pop and rock brothers, Sparks.
Radical stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver, 'Marriage Story') and beloved opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard, 'Macbeth') fall madly in love, soon getting married and having their first child, Annette. As Anna's career surpasses Henry's, he become sick with jealousy and begins to self-sabotage his relationship with his wife and daughter for his own selfish ambitions.
I must admit off the bat that 'Annette' is my first Leos Carax film, but from the moment it begins, it became clear to me why Carax is held in such high regard. His singularity of vision and boundless imagination are immediately evident, and for the most part, the success of 'Annette' as an experience comes from Carax and his collaborators' daring in approaching the material. One of the arguments against musicals is often that they don't reflect reality, and the less successful ones find it difficult to bridge the heightened form and relatable world of the audience. What Sparks has written is less of a musical and more of a modern rock opera, akin to the stage works of Phillip Glass or Robert Wilson, so even the rules of the film musical would be inadequate in engaging with it. The world of 'Annette' is a complete artifice, a fantasy that is both a physicalisation of the warped reality of its protagonists and a visual response to the music itself. It is also a work fashioned especially for the screen, so Carax, along with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, production designer Florian Sanson and costume designers Pascaline Chavanne and Ursula Paredes Choto take full advantage of the scale that the screen offers, matching the work of Sparks in terms of ingenuity and manipulation of form.
It's a fine line to bring the right amount of artifice to a work without it feeling fake., overblown or insincere, but the technical craft of 'Annette' never makes this mistake, and many of its most exhilarating moments come from the cinematic magic tricks Carax employs, often without any attempt to hide how those tricks are pulled off. Take Annette herself, for example, the centrepiece of the film - we see her, not as a human child, but as a puppet, silent and easily manipulated but pure, innocent and delicate. A lesser film would bungle this conceit, but it becomes integral here to the dramaturgy of the work, and is ultimately resolved in an extraordinary manner in the final moments.
Carax does what any director engaging in musically-driven storytelling on-screen needs to do - connect with, listen to and be driven by the music. Sparks' score is consistently thrilling and constantly shifting in tone, form and language. The film follows suit, responding in its own language to what the music is offering, and Nelly Quettier's terrific editing engages directly with the rhythm of the music itself. At its best, 'Annette' is a reminder of how powerful musically-driven storytelling on film can be, the meeting of two artificial forms that can reveal with great alacrity the psychological and emotional aspects of human experience in a manner that is both uncompromising and exhilarating.
And yet, despite all these tremendous attributes, 'Annette' is never able to reach the heights it ambitiously aims for. The problem is the material itself - it's a story told very well, with committed and exciting performances, driven by a genuinely thrilling score, but the story itself is, in the end, just another about an egotistical, artistically-driven male genius engaged in self-destruction. Henry is a beast of unbridled male anger, and while neither Adam Driver nor the film itself are unwilling to interrogate this, Henry's story is ultimately not as interesting or engaging as the film seems to think it is. In many ways, the remarkable execution of the film and the bursts of imagination feel wasted on a story this familiar, a story it doesn't really have anything to add to. We've even seen this story in musically-driven films often of late, whether it be Damien Chazelle's deceptive interrogation of artistic male privilege in his sublime 'La La Land' (2016) or the collapse of Jackson Maine in Bradley Cooper's 'A Star Is Born' (2018). In 'Annette', we spend too much time watching Henry shatter the lives of everyone around him, but not as much with the lives that are shattered. He is the focus of the film, but easily its least interesting character. The film is also possibly a bit too long, with a lot of the back end of the film acting as filler where it could have been swifter, sharper, meaner, and perhaps made its point all the clearer.
In many ways, the remarkable execution of the film and the bursts of imagination feel wasted on a story this familiar, a story it doesn't really have anything to add to.
Watching 'Annette' is like slipping into a dream, and ultimately this is the best reason to recommend it. There are images, moments, flashes of colour and light and sound that crawl deep into your imagination and offer a tantalising glimpse into the distorted, metaphysical world of the artistic brain unbound. The artist in question though turns out to be too combustible, too mean-spirited and ultimately too one-dimensional to sustain the film, making you wish that this artistic effort were spent on Anne's story rather than Henry's. When the magical realism of the film finally reaches its fascinating peak in the third act, it comes almost too late to fully succeed. That said, thank goodness that films like 'Annette' can exist in the world, especially when the film musical is not often something we associate with formal daring. Leos Carax is a purveyor of dreams, and 'Annette' is a gorgeous dream to swim in, even just to see and hear the many sights it has to offer.