The first thing viewers may say as they watch the credits of director Leos Carax’s “Annette” play out on their TV screen is, “Wow, that was weird.” And, to be fair, “Annette” is very weird.
Throughout the rock opera, Carax kicks aside convention with the playful disregard of a child kicking a rock down the street, starting with the film’s score. As if a rock opera wasn’t already strange enough, pop duo Sparks imbues the lyrics of “Annette” with an overtness one normally expects from an Honest Trailer rather than from an actual movie.
The film’s characterization strikes an even stranger note. Carax chooses to portray Annette, the little girl whose name titles the film, as a semi-realistic string puppet, making her relationship with her parents painfully obvious.
The story, however, begins before Annette’s birth, with the romance of a comedian and an opera singer. Adam Driver plays popular standup comic Henry McHenry, while Marion Cotillard plays Ann, an opera star and counterbalance to Henry. In the film’s first scenes, viewers watch the couple woo each other, riding on Henry’s motorcycle, exploring the woods near their home, and even engaging in on-screen intimacy — all while singing the recurring theme “We Love Each Other So Much.” (Somehow, the actors manage to pull this off.)
During these early scenes, viewers learn some important facts. Ann and McHenry are not only counterparts but also opposites. Henry is the kind of comedian who dispenses bitter self-reflection rather than genuine insight or even merriment. In fact, his comedy is not really comedy at all. Henry paces back and forth in a dark grey bathrobe, ladling out disgust, rage and contempt to his audience, who inexplicably adore him.
Ann, on the other hand, performs the kind of high art that requires her to treat her audience with respect. She stars in the opera, performing a death scene that earns her critical acclaim. When the couple meets up outside Ann’s opera house in their first public appearance, Ann asks her fiancé how his set went: “I killed, murdered, demolished them,” Henry says. Then he asks how Ann’s performance went. “I saved them,” she replies.
Throughout much of the film, Ann feels too ephemeral for the audience to believe she’s quite real. However, Cotillard’s enigmatic mystique somehow makes her character human enough for viewers to keep watching. The film focuses more on Henry, whom Driver invests with his signature desperation, delusion and charisma. Throughout “Annette,” both actors’ performances recall their previous roles: Driver in “Girls” and “The Last Jedi,” Cotillard in “Inception” and “Midnight in Paris.”
Of course, another aspect of the film catches the viewers’ attention: the score. “Annette” is a true rock opera, functioning in an alternate reality where spoken words are a rare occurrence. This musical emphasis surprisingly doesn’t impede the film’s storytelling ability — in fact, the score dramatizes characters’ emotions, and, as a result, propels the plot of the film forward.
As Sheila O’Malley writes for Roger Ebert, “‘Annette’ is filled with dark and sometimes self-destructive energy, where emotions are barely manageable and can only be expressed through song. This is the conceit that is so often not properly addressed in the modern movie musical. It feels artificial to start singing in the middle of a scene. It is artificial. Carax, though, is comfortable in the fluidity of the ‘real’ and the ‘assumed.’”
Carax and Sparks fill “Annette” with giant, red, delightful sounds: piano, bass guitar and drums. Viewers will have an especially hard time shaking the more upbeat tunes such as “When Do We Start?” out of their ears.
Sparks’ songwriting blatantly disregards the classic mantra of “show, don’t tell.” In the most-repeated theme of the rock opera, “We Love Each Other So Much,” Ann and Henry don’t croon about their internal experiences, such as how their hearts flutter at the sight of each other. Rather, the couple sings lines like, “We love each other so much / Counterintuitive, baby / And yet we remain / We love each other so much.”
Sparks’ lyricism generates laughter, as well as plays the clever trick of paradoxically avoiding cliche. Even more impressively, Sparks’ words also offer a kind of false comfort. “Annette” is not nearly as simple as it seems, and its lyrics are only seemingly transparent.
Perhaps viewers unconsciously pick up on the deeper significance of Sparks’ words. Either way, they intuit that the bottom is about to drop. Relatively early in the rock opera, a high, childlike chorus rings out the words viewers themselves may be thinking: “Something’s about to break but it isn’t clear / Is it something we should cheer? / Is it something we should fear? / (Not enough was going on, oh yeah).”
Minor spoiler alert: It’s something to fear, and, as audiences may already suspect, that something has to do with Henry. Henry cannot seem to detach himself from trouble. In the words of The New York Times, the plot of “Annette” “unfolds with the relentless momentum of a nightmare.”
The impetus behind the nightmare is a difficult one to articulate. Even the infamously plain-speaking duo that is Sparks refer to it only through analogy. In one of the earliest scenes of the rock opera, Henry’s audience begs him to share why he decided to pursue a career in comedy: “Why did you become a comedian? / Fear of death?” they chant.
With Henry’s words, the music stops. “Oh, no, no,” he says. “See, I have sympathy for the abyss… That’s why I must never, never cast my eyes towards the abyss.” Throughout the scenes that follow, viewers restlessly ponder the meaning of Henry’s words. At the same time, the plot studies its effects with lingering fascination.
Is the abyss simply fear, or is it perhaps the broader category of “mental unwellness”? Does some deeper, supernatural force compound these biological factors, compelling Henry to hurt himself and others in spite of his still-operational faculties of reason and humanity? “Annette” seems to grasp for an answer to a nearly unanswerable question: What is the darkness that the Grimm brothers attempt to capture in their tales’ woods, witches and stepmothers?
Though Henry and Ann grapple with these questions, they ultimately toss them aside to gaze at their newborn daughter with devotion. To the couple, Annette is nothing more than their darling girl, denied the agency of selfhood — both literally and metaphorically: She plays the role of a puppet. (Sparks and Carax are not very subtle. At least, that’s what viewers assume — until the rock opera’s ending forces audience members to realize the writers’ long-term strategy.)
Throughout the rock opera, Carax eschews realism for something more like impressionism. “Annette” cuts straight past the surface of reality, shifting the center of viewers’ gravity like a boat after dry land. Carax doesn’t attempt to offer a purely rational framework for the story’s unfolding. Instead, he points at the looming abyss in front of viewers’ eyes, impossible to ignore or deny.
As A.O. Scott writes for The New York Times: “The world of ‘Annette’ … is a land beyond the literal, a figment of stage design, dream logic and hallucinatory expressionism.”
Henry sums up the movie’s themes in his final, devastating scene: “Imagination’s strong/ and reason’s song/ is weak and thin,” he sings to Annette. As viewers watch the film’s closing credits play out, they may experience a complicated cocktail of emotions: sadness, release and… hope? The film looks straight into the face of reality, generating a paradoxical lift in its viewers’ spirits.
As O’Malley puts it, “The truth is sometimes unbreakable. All you can do is laugh.”
Viewers may laugh at “Annette,” a film whose strangeness and brazen honesty create the psychic distance necessary for audiences to clearly observe their surroundings. The gift “Annette” offers its viewers is empathy. It doesn’t provide a solution for the “abyss,” but it does confirm its existence, and, as a result, it can only empower.