Directed by Leos Carax; Written by Ron Mael and Russell Mael
“There, let us listen to it and let it guide our feelings,” says Denis Lavant’s character in Leos Carax’s 1986 film Mauvais Sang as he turns on the radio. Not long after, David Bowie’s “Modern Love” blasts out and sends him running down the street, the music keeping up with him, propelling him forward as if inside of him, struggling to get out.
In Carax’s last feature, 2012’s Holy Motors, Kylie Minogue wanders an abandoned department store while singing out a story of love lost, inserting a melodic and melancholy interlude in a metatextual whirlwind. I’m mentioning these scenes to say the films of Leos Carax have always had music inside of them, and Annette sees him fulfill a destiny that was perhaps always in the making, reviving the musical stylings made famous by Jacques Demy with a film whose heart is laid bare entirely through song.
It tells the story of a tempestuous relationship between Henry (Adam Driver) and Ann (Marion Cotillard) whose union represents a clash of cultures: he’s a shock comic, a rabble-rouser almost fighting his rowdy audience; opposite him there’s Ann, an opera singer who’s revered at a distance by a hushed crowd: quiet please, an angel of God is in the house.
Despite their differences, Henry and Ann love each other so much, as they tell us in “We Love Each Other So Much” a musical motif that despite its title is sung like a lament, an elegy delivered before the final fact as if to say that whatever comes next, remember this. Unlike classic musicals, whose sad scenes were often just passing clouds teasing a brighter sun, Annette is not a celebration, but a tragedy of love, a tragedy of people, and its score composed by Sparks only amps up in anger, never in ecstasy. On the whole, it remains unmelodic, as the story laden with feelings of anger, jealousy, self-hatred and guilt never give much cause for optimism.
Modern sensibilities have pushed the musical out of favour with the general adult movie-going public. Mega-success and cultural phenomenon Hamilton broke the crossover-barrier, and even then it was just a recording of the stage performance. Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born made it to the Oscars (and won a handful between them!) but they were, in essence, films with songs put in, used as elements and not as a mode of storytelling. Of the past decade, only La La Land entered the mainstream with song and dance as the medium rather than the message, using music as an active means of expression and turning bodies into instruments.
What took the musical’s place? Action films did, choreographing punches, kicks and explosions in performances bent on domination instead of collaboration. Where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced cheek to cheek in Top Hat, we now have Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson punching in faces of baddies they run across, perhaps reflecting our evolving worldview that sees life as a zero-sum game, where for one to prosper, another must lose out.
Gloomy societal armchair diagnosis aside, Annette is an old familiar face in strange times, and if you are not keen on the idea of being sung at for more than 150 minutes, I suggest you stay away.
Cotillard and Driver, while serviceable, are not singers, and they’re not asked to do much in the way of dancing. Driver’s baritone turns reedy when asked to ascend, and Cotillard’s lithe voice doesn’t have much depth to it. While that may sound damning, their virtues lie elsewhere, and in Carax’s hands, are maximized.
Cotillard makes the most of a character whose role is perhaps more a foil to Driver’s, a frail innocence whose only flaw perhaps lies in loving the wrong person, a beautiful idea rather than a person actively shaping the story. It is Henry’s story, and while Driver was likely not cast for his vocal prowess, he certainly was for his body and its animal expressiveness.
It’s hard to to think of a working actor who can do what Driver can, and watching him make his hulking frame come alive and impose itself reminds me of Gene Kelly who could control his body with an explosive grace. In Annette, whether Driver prowls the stage like a vulture, perfectly mimes a tickle-attack, or sits idly astride his large motorcycle like a statue, his gravity and expressiveness remains unmatched with body language that speaks in both prose and poetry.
Annette is another feather in Driver’s cap, and his fame has allowed Carax to reach the biggest stage on which to showcase his unique sensibilities, meta-fascinations and chameleon artistry. You may find the artificiality of musicals too much to properly enjoy, but in a cinematic landscape committed to either comic book heroes or pained understatement, fantasies told in song and dance are now a fresh breath of air, and in Leos Carax, the musical genre found a mind who understands its potential better than most.