by Levan Tskhovrebadze.
It seems as the French director torments himself over personal misfortune; however, he summons paradoxes of life and transpires this absurdist tragedy as a coming-of-age spectacle for the baby miracle Annette.”
“Each man kills the thing he loves
by each let this be heard”
Oscar Wilde’s gloomy realistic poem The Ballad of the Reading Gaol displays the despair of the prisoner who killed his wife and is sentenced to death. British poet and literary critic Carol Rumens notes that “it’s both a Dante-esque circle of hell and the deadly routine of prison life.” In the very same manner, Leos Carax sets the hellish climate in his latest feature “Annette” (2021) after Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) maladroitly throws his wife into the stormy sea from their private yacht. In the poem Wilde remarks:
“Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!”
But only the man girdled with desperation and substantial abyss, Henry McHenry, would kill his love by plunging her in the middle of a blustery sea. Carax’s emotional attachment to the picture is quite obvious. His wife, an outstanding Russian actress Katya Golubeva, was killed in 2011 in circumstances that keep secret to the public even today. It seems as the French director torments himself over personal misfortune; however, he summons paradoxes of life and transpires this absurdist tragedy as a coming-of-age spectacle for the baby miracle Annette.
Once an enfant terrible of French cinema (he was just 24 when his debut feature an alluring romantic drama, Boy Meets Girl, was released in 1984) is now a mature auteur with grief, anger, and the luggage of lifelong miseries. In this spirit, he directs his first English-language and fully musical film. From the initial scene, Carax overturns cultural contracts of Hollywood by deploying different kinds of shots of the city, studio, and himself with a bizarre montage. The American pop-duo of brothers Ron and Russel Mael, who offered the directing job to Carax, are in the recording studio. Soon, Leos calls his and Katya’s sixteen years old daughter Nastya Golubeva Carax to watch the Sparks performing and “so they start” as the film unfolds, leading characters of Henry Mchenry and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard).
Henry is a popular stand-up comedian whose shows ain’t funny – he panics, mocks and yells at his audience while they treat him discourteously, in turn. Before going on stage, he exercises like a boxer; even on the stage, he acts like a raging bull as if he’s fighting against his spectators and after the show, he tells Ann that he killed his crowd. Ann is a famous soprano who usually dies on a stage and heals the mental scars of her audience. Carax deliberately eliminates peculiar elements of her personality to aggravate the issue of women’s objectification; it seems as Ann is one of the victims of Henry’s audience. Headlines describe them as Beauty and the Beast, and they also consider their love paradoxical. The result of their illogical passion is also petrifying: Ann gives birth to Annette, a baby constructed as a wooden puppet and gifted with a breathtaking voice.
Carax assembles imagery of classic films, popular narratives, or even contemporary social issues to discern the path in the abyss. He reminisces a lot of authors throughout the history of cinema, literature, and music and also thanks to them in the ending titles. He refers to Edgar Allan Poe, Bela Bartok, and King Vidor, while collecting their work and tangling them into one another. In one instance, Henry’s sympathy for the abyss is a Poesque concept while he also embodies a type of a ferocious monkey from Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgues. In another case we see an actual primate holding baby Annette in Henry’s dreams, while in daily life Annette carries a baby chimpanzee. This intercultural play initially leads to confusion but pace by pace, it makes sense.
Critics have noted Annette’s special approach to different types of authors but none have mentioned the influence of the master of controversial cinematic world — in this case, the enfant terrible of German film — Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his latest Querelle (1982). No one before Fassbinder managed to establish such alienating effect on screen, and herewith, his influence gets creates a cathartic effect for the audience. In the course of his career, the German director narrated sets of tall stories, whimsy-whamsy tales of a tub and led to the audience laugh and cry altogether but he made it radical in his requiem Querelle. That’s exactly what Carax achieves in this absurdist rock opera. The filmic body of Annette is a total camouflage, a nearly unbelievable and a wicked mirage of a self-torturing man. Both Carax and Fassbinder mingle truth with a lie; they confront music with the image and confuse vulgar and elegant with each other; they disguise natural as artificial and encase atrocious behavior in a tender mode. Fassbinder’s final film was a screen version of Jean Genet’s outstanding novel Querelle of Brest where the director leads to transform this surreal story as his quasi-autobiography. Just like Annette isn’t written by Carax himself, the source of its nutrition is the director’s private tragedy and experience.
This experimental musical is a belittlement of pop culture as it unconventionally focuses on the #MeToo movement, exposes scornful stand-up comedy, involves child exploitation (in this case, of one who’s not really a child), elucidates the concept of fame, and decries yellow journalism. Short after the release of the picture, Carax revealed he wanted to cast Rihanna at one of the scenes. The popular singer was supposed to play herself and sing a duet with baby Annette, but she turned down. That again exposes Carax as a witty joker urging to involve reality into the fiction and make it more shocking.
Annette is way too complex with its tropes and outlook, while the sole motif remains clear, that of a coming-of-age parable. It’s significant to remember that in the beginning the director calls his daughter to watch and listen, and every time they appear on screen it’s like they’re observing the story together. Before Annette’s birth, popular media denotes that “singing and laughter around the Defransoux – McHenry household will soon be drowned out by the cries of a newborn girl.” Her delivery is also carnivalesque. She’s always in the focus of the press and later, after the middle of the film during Henry’s emotional and professional frustration, when he kills Ann, she rises as a baby star. It’s like she’s following Ann’s path and McHenry, once a violent husband now sets off as an exploiter father. This picture is a rare exhibition of Proustian stream of consciousness and since in emotional cognizance words possess photographic value, it’s like the director is talking to his maturing daughter with the Gothic vocabulary of Annette.
As soon as McHenry recognizes Annette’s talent (after the death of Ann) once again he bogs into the euphoria of success by getting in touch with Ann’s conductor to make Annette star. The baby’s unable to stand up for herself and deny the exploitation. She doesn’t even say words; she only chants peaceful melodies and deprives the audience of speech, just like her mother. Henry is a careless dad and the conductor serves as Annette’s caregiver. After Henry’s arrest (for murder), Annette visits him in the prison. From the puppet she turns into a real person (Devyn McDowell), thus becoming mature with a brilliant performance. Adam Driver just looks at the camera saying: “stop watching me.”
It’s a warning that in the first scene of the film, the father and daughter are watching and in the ending scene antother father-daughter are being watched. As if the director is telling the last bedtime story for his maturing daughter. And as a genuine believer of cinema Carax holds his failure and celebrates, invoking Kierkegaard’s “in his failure, the believer finds his triumph.”
Levan Tskhovrebadze is a Georgian-based film critic who has written for Senses of Cinema and Film New Europe. He served on the FIPRESCI jury at the 35th edition of Warsaw Film Festival and has participated in the FIPRESCI Warsaw Critics Project.