Musical films are few-and-far-between these days. Even more so are the ones worth watching. And many of the popular ones that emerge cause divisive strife between critics and audiences. Whether or not you prefer Les Miserables to La La Land, I am relatively certain nothing in the world of cinematic song-and-dance will ever be as divisive as Leos Carax’s undeniably bold Annette. I’ve never before seen a film of this genre blend musical-style showtunes, opera, and rock music that echoes decades beforehand. That said, I’ve also never seen a musical (or possibly any movie) that leans so confidently into its absurdity that I know fully that while much of my audience was immersed, many of them walked out with perplexity, even anger, mumbling “That was so stupid.” Acknowledging this, I am admittedly uncertain what my true feelings are. But it must also be recognized that if the person reading this truly loves the cinematic form and wants to see what ranges it can aspire to–whether they work or don’t–they should definitely see Annette, at least once.
Let me explain:
First, a little about how I became excited to see this film–In college, I felt that I knew very little about the post New-Wave French filmmakers, and, wanting to see more French stories told in full-color, I stumbled upon Leos Carax, and it only took two films of his for me to register myself as a fan and to register Carax as someone distinct and worthy of recognition. The two films that I saw, Mauvais Sang and The Lovers on the Bridge both impacted me greatly and established his style for me, one defined by distinct palettes to make a luminescent world while its lovesick protagonists linger and hope, usually with some kind of romantic goal in mind. His films are never date-movies, but all seem to carry romantic weight; Carax seems to recognize the way that kind of passion toward one another can change and dictate people’s actions and motives, and even drive them insane.
Then there’s the casting and genre–Adam Driver seemed to come onto the scene out of nowhere, first in a small role in Lincoln, where his work would only widen in scope until he became a Star Wars villain. I could’ve said yesterday that he’s tackled everything from blockbusters to Jarmusch’s mood-poem Paterson to the dramatic powerhouse of Marriage Story. Today I can say he’s tackled literally everything. The man could die tomorrow and even the most eccentric of film-fans will have a favorite Driver performance. While I’ve only seen Marion Cotillard in minor roles, I vividly recall seeing Simon Helberg as a one-note perverted genius in The Big Bang Theory, making him the last person I’d expect to work with Carax, even if it has been nine years since his last feature.
And the genre is a musical. I didn’t watch much in the way of teasers or trailers for Annette but I knew it was a musical, and that the music and lyrics were dictated by the Sparks Brothers, a band I know basically nothing of. If their style is similar to that of Annette though, they’re interesting to say the least.
But it’s not even its stance as a musical that sets it apart from Carax’s psychological dramas. Everything in every frame has an ambiance of facade. The most dramatic scenes are in obvious sets, the actors’ movements, right down to the mere extras and ensemble, are absurd and otherworldly, and I doubt a single light in the film is not flourescent. In an age where movies are trying so constantly to become more-and-more realistic and gritty, Leos Carax and the Sparks Brothers have decidedly taken a sharp left, and whether that’s a positive or a negative is truly in the eye of the beholder. Some audiences/critics would maintain that their theatrical experiences should delve into escapism, as deeply as possible, even (or especially) when that results in a world that is just goofy as it is dreamy. Others will just scoff at this film and turn it off after a half hour. Much like Mother! or Under the Silver Lake, this is a film from the last decade that I not only expect, but fully know will not be replicated.
It is times like these that I’m glad I’ve done away with my rating system. While I’m convinced I liked it, I believe for me it demands at least one additional viewing, as not knowing what to expect compromises the initial viewing, as this level of surreal absurdity is not what we as audience members are accustomed to. If you are still on the fence about this film, just know one thing–the title character is literally a puppet. If that isn’t a dealbreaker, go ahead. If it is, go see something else.