Up-front, here’s my bona fides: I hardly ever go to movies, or watch TV, or listen to music, or partake of my society’s normal activities, especially regarding “pop culture.” In turn I have never heard of Sparks, nor Marion Cotillard, and only by accident have ever seen or heard of Adam Driver. If this in your view disqualifies me from having views on what I do see, that’s OK by me.
[Detour 1: as I was having some virtually unattended screenings at the Torino Film Museum, and Jarmusch’s Paterson was showing in the other room so I got in free, I went to it – he had a long line of the hip crowd of Italia going in; it was “meh” for me as a film, as was Driver, of whom I’d never heard.]
I went the other day to see Leos Carax’s newest film, Annette, as rather by accident I’d seen his previous one, Holy Motors, and – with the exception of the last scene – had found it exhilarating and wonderful. I approached the new one, in light of the contradictory views and reviews coming out of Cannes with some positive anticipation.
As this film is scarcely about its “story” I’ll refer you to reviews, links below, to fill it in if you need. Briefly though it is big famous kinda ugly comedian, Henry McHenry, who does crude stand-up hooks up with petite famous opera singer, Ann, they fall in love, have a kind of baby, and then fall out. Perhaps he kills her. Somewhere another guy, a pianist/conductor materializes, perhaps having an affair with opera singer. He gets killed. The kinda baby, Annette, a beguiling puppet, acquires Ann’s voice and sings, becoming hyper famous and enriching now-failed comedian dad. And he ends in the dock, in prison, and does a duet with dead wife, and…. And the story basically is stupid, not really worth figuring out as it is merely a cheap plastic hanger on which to hang the libretto/lyrics of Sparks, which is credited with the script (sort of), and of Carax’s extravagant cinematic looks and tropes.
Perhaps in keeping with his hostile McHenry character (or saying something about himself), Carax opens the film with a voice-over abusing the audience, telling them what they may or may not do while watching the film, and that they mustn’t breathe the whole time. This is, I suppose, meant to be ironically/hip funny, but it sets the tone. Composed of a series of highly theatrical set-pieces, Annette opens with Carax at a sound studio mix board, manipulating the sound and audience, a kind of insider self-reflection which I guess is supposed to be hip/intellectual. OK. Sparks commences playing and before you know it they, the studio gang and backup singers, with McHenry and Ann leading them, are singing May We Start, (another self-referential hint), lyrics of the Sparks, down a Santa Monica street, a straight lift out of a better scene in Holy Motors. Hmmm.
McHenry leaves Ann, putting on a black helmet, mounting a black motorcycle, and roaring off. He re-materializes in the next set-piece, donning a fighter’s heavy robe and hood, waving his head and punching before going on stage for his “act.” His stand-up is done in a massive theater space, with his packed audience laughing on cue, as McHenry, the Ape of God, dishes out insults and bad words and unPC thoughts, while the spectators suck it up. It is a major spectacle, and presented as one. Seemingly a sly critique of celebrity culture.
While McHenry is going his shtick Ann is doing hers, opera, for a similar but higher-tone audience, which is as enthralled with her as the other is with her new boy-friend.
Collaborating with Sparks, the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, Carax has made this film as a musical, with the actors actually singing the lyrics. At the outset this is a bit charming, as neither Cotillard or Driver are actually very good at it, and at least at the outset it tends to deflect our attention from the actual “book” which the Sparks wrote. They are also not very good at what they do, or so thinks this jaded soul.
Opening, as he does in his first set-pieces, with high-energy scenes, Carax propels the spectator along, as in most spectacles, with, well, spectacle. Bright colors, loud sounds, swooping wide-screen camera movements. He issues pieces of his “story” in miserly bits, goading the viewer to put it together. McHenry and Ann inexplicably fall in love – they do, they do – and walk romantically hand in hand in a California paradise, singing “We Love Each Other So Much.” Yes, we do. They also get down to the dirty business of the sex end of things, still singing as McHenry works Ann’s labia with his tongue, emerging from down there to warble “we love… etc.” still again. Ann orgasms. Love love love.
I could go on in this manner, set-piece by set-piece, but it wouldn’t really help. Some of these episodes are charming and in themselves, work. Some are really bad and don’t work at all. Periodically these story sets are punctuated with pop news-like reports about the travails of our celebrity subjects, breathless National Inquirer-type TV reports, presented in a sort-of parody of such TV crap: they are a couple !! they are getting married !!! they are having a baby !!!! they are heading to splitzville !!!!!! These interjections, along with a few other ones – a multi-screen one of the 6 women who have belatedly come out with bad things about McHenry – are presented in a jolting different aesthetic, and are intended to be a critique of our shallow star/money oriented culture and its dubious qualities.
As the film progresses, the sound builds into constant bombast, the actor’s “singing” begins to grate, the Mael brother’s libretto and lyrics loop and creak and show themselves thread-bare in all senses, and the energy of the opening passages gets subsumed into exhaustion as it cannot be sustained. Arriving at a critical peak, when our couple are doing their “breaking up is hard to do” bit and go on a boat to patch up their problems, in a hysterically misguided set-piece of pure artifice, the film collapses, having ladled on the show-biz pizzazz without break, reaching this theatrically absurd scene in which, dum da dum dum, McHenry does in his wife.
I didn’t clock it, but perhaps this sequence was a bit over half-way into the film, which then carries on to this set-piece and that, none of which one might give a fuck about since from the outset Carax never gives us any reason to care about either of these characters, nor about the story/film they are trapped in. Instead we are dished out set-pieces of pure artifice, one after the other, chocolate on chocolate on chocolate. The bravura cinematic tricks run aground, and we find ourselves hoping this next one will be The End. No such luck. Instead Carax grinds on. As he does so the actors too seem to lose gas, their alleged singing turning to wheezing, and reading between the lines one can hear the plaintive “can we stop” lurking in the background. And indeed, when Carax finally decides to drop his circus tent, we are told – more self-referential BS – that we can “stop looking.” Thanks a lot, Leos.
[Detour 2: A few months ago, under vaguely similar circumstances, I went with anticipation to see Pedro Costa’s latest film Vitalina Verena, and likewise came away disappointed. For pretty much the same reasons I found this film a major let-down. In this case I haven’t seen Carax’s earlier films, though I have seen clips that suggest he’s done much the same things along the way, which would confirm my thought that obsessive type artists tend to curdle in on themselves, their artistic inventions or tricks folding in on themselves to become an inadvertent self-parody.
Or perhaps it is that I am jaded and old and the middle-finger to society that Carax’s film imagines itself to be seems both stale and utterly compromised, as does the cutesy self-referential stuff, something that wore out long ago.]
It is clear that Carax intended this film to be a kind of Debordian critique of the society of spectacle, mass media, celebrity and all that, but in this he fails completely, as the means he uses are exactly the same as those which he imagines to critique. The attempts at satire are both too obvious and too much exactly like what is being satirized, and becomes grotesquely weighted down with the gravity of the setting – Our Baby Annette’s finale falls dead despite the bombast, or precisely because of it. In any of the arts, a sense of proportion is a major element, and Carax has none. Big stars (I guess), techno razzle-dazzle, bombastic sound, cinematic daring-do, and no sense of restraint. Etc.
From what I have read from our “serious critics” this would-be critique seems to either have flown over their heads or has been quashed by their far greater interest in operatic cunning lingo. Or since they make their bread and butter playing in the circus of spectacle, perhaps if they are conscious of it at all, they think better than to bite the hand that feeds.
A few random things, seemingly unmentioned by our critic friends:
Ann’s character is seen in an early shot, taking a bite of an apple; in numerous shots there is an apple placed near her, always with a bite out. Eve?
McHenry is seen scratching his face, with marks there becoming ever more visible until at the end it is like a birthmark – the mark of Cain, the murderer?
Is Carax a Lars von Trier fan? While I haven’t seen it some of the imagery in this film looks like shots from Melancholia.
Or is it all just a hipster thing, Rosebud?
In summary, this is a film which zipped along for a bit and then ran right up its own pretensions and hipness, sniffing its own ass until it disappeared. A fitting reward for Jeff Bezos and Amazon studios for funding an aging artsy filmmaker, who given a lot of money, some big stars, can give you a bloated piece of auteur in Depends. Can someone change his diapers?