Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 26, 2021 10:05 pm 
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A Bold, ultimately unappealing musical film

Mike D''Angelo writes in his AV Club. review that Annette is "bold, creative, and fearless in its particulars" but for that very reason its "broader shape" is "a little disappointing." This is because it is, he says, really "at bottom" merely "yet another semi-sympathetic portrait of toxic masculinity," and indeed "one that doesn’t dig very deep into its protagonist’s warped psyche." Toxic masculinity isn't quite the whole story, since Adam Driver's character at the end is in prison for the murder or wrongful deaths of two women. Well, that's pretty toxic. This oddball musical film deserves points for its originality that are offset by the way it leaves one ultimately unmoved and a little repelled, the failure due mostly to its protagonist's lack of depth.

This despite the complexity of possible references. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian lists as elements "the fanaticism of Cavalcanti’s ventriloquist dummy from Dead of Night, the self-hate of James Mason from A Star Is Born, the desperate father-daughter dysfunction of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (which Carax referenced in his last film, Holy Motors[//i]) and perhaps most obviously the strident sadness of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s [i]Phantom of the Opera." Yet none of these elements grabbed me. They all seem potted and artificial.

Annette is a modern musical, and as such not surprisingly depicts an unsavory character. Adam Driver plays an unfunhy shock-comedian, Henry McHenry, known as "the Ape of God." The second of two performances we sit through, which definitively alienates his audience usually hungry for provocation, shows him depicting graphically how he has killed his wife by tickling her to death. It's a joke. Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), an opera singer, is alive, though she doesn't seem to enjoy Henry's aggressive tickling sessions. Henry's behavior grows increasingly dysfunctional thereafter as his success fades and hers continues and even grows, the celebrity power couple now dangerously unbalanced. (Cotillard's moments of opera are dubbed by a professional singer; she and Driver otherwise warble in their own natural unprofessional voices.) The tickling-to-death enactment is absurd, but scary: it shows how Driver could have easily gotten into the Julliard School on his second, post-Marines try. It's too over-the-top to be believable but it's so committed it's arresting, show-stopping.

After a child is born to them, a little girl, the titular Annette, early on she develops a tendency to sing, miraculously. The singing itself isn't miraculous, but its happening spontaneously and at such an early age is very peculiar. Henry insists to his wife's cohort, known as The Accompanist (Simon Helberg) that they must quit what they are doing - Henry's career has tanked anyway - to tour featuring Annette as a wonder of the world. By the willing suspension of disbelief we're supposed to assume audiences would rush to see a singing baby. It's a grotesque idea, like the perverse things Henry does or allows to happen throughout.

Annette is depicted through most of the film until the final scene by wooden puppets. Is this part of the "bold, creative, and fearless" "particulars" of Annette, which D'Angelo doesn't actually specify? I was let down by it, though, because it had sounded in the excited initial reports of this film as if the puppets would be really crude and strange, their inclusion in otherwise realistic scenes therefore truly bizarre. But they're lifelike, with semi-convincing little glass eyes, they move, and they fit pretty well into the film's otherwise unnatural sequence of events. They're just not quite as lifelike as a living child actor, as we realize in that final scene which substitutes one- a child actor who sings in her own real voice.

Annette is carried along not so much by boldness as by production values - this is a good-looking, well-made film - and the adeptness of Leos Carax, who hasn't done anything for the big screen since his provocative and strange 2012 film Holy Motors, starring the remarkable Denis Lavant. There are moments when, after being repelled by the performances of the "Ape of God," I was won over by the fluency of the action and by Driver's ability to throw himself wholeheartedly into any drama, however weird. And by Driver's unique, appealing physicality, one of the chief reasons why he has been so much seen in so many good recent movies. No well-known film actor, I realized, has a body like that, and it's impressive, even curiously satisfying, to look at those pecs, that heroic torso, that long body, those broad shoulders, powerful arms and narrow waist. These assets are frequently on display in the film. He's a pretty man and that offsets, perhaps even makes necessary, the long, decidedly unpretty horse-face framed by the long hippie hair. In speaking he is deep-voiced, but when he sings, where is that powerful resonance? Maybe a rich baritone might ruin the offbeat effect.

As has been noted however, Marion Cotillard doesn't give herself so wholeheartedly to the action or show off so dramatically as Ann, though the initial pairing off of Henry and Ann is plausible and they make a good match.

Whether of not Henry is an example of "toxic masculinity" can't ultimately be determined because the action doesn't show the difference between that quality and simple bad behavior, which in whatever case is offset by Driver's soulfulness and heroic torso. It is also hard for me to evaluate the film since I am not a fan of musicals to begin with. While the music here by the veteran group Sparks - seen in the opening scene as is Carax himself, including the lyrics, is said to be above average, the action is simply eye-catching but anomalous. Driver's in-your-face, physically impressive character is all show, with no exploration of any depths. Should we forgive and love him? But look at what he's done: and there are no mitigating factors.

The most interesting, and under-used, character is The Accompanist, who turns out to have had a more complex relationship with Ann than appeared. Shorter, generally less physically unusual in this role, Simon Helberg has a very enjoyable, funny scene toward the end where he explains himself intimately to the audience while conducting an orchestra - the job he always wanted, to which he has graduated now. He conducts with flowery, exaggerated gestures in between asides, taking a break from the latter each time by saying, "Excuse me a minute." It's an original, amusing fourth-wall invasion sequence. I'd have liked more of that and more of The Accompanist.

Annette, 141 mins., debuted - great publicity - as the opening film at Cannes Jul. 6, 2021, and has been in 27 festivals (as listen on IMDb), with many internet releases in multiple countries from Aug. 2021 on. Limited US release Aug. 6. It is now available on Amazon Prime, where it was screened for this review. Metacritic: 67%.


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