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Ann Defrasnoux is an opera singer. Henry McHenry is a stand-up comic. Their swirling romance, much like the weird and wonderful movie it is set in, is a reminder that tragedy and comedy often make close friends. But where does one end and the other begins? When Ann (Marion Cotillard) solemnly dons a red wig and navigates the kind of scenery that keeps the fog machines going, you might stifle a laugh as well as a tear. And when Henry (Adam Driver) takes the stage in a boxing robe that suits his hard-hitting delivery, his violent self-loathing (“Why did you become a comedian ?!” he wonders over and over again) seems to provoke more anxiety than laughing.
These wild emotional extremes can only be properly expressed in song, an article of faith that “Annette” embraces with fervent imagination and playful, unwavering conviction. Dazzlingly directed by French filmmaker Leos Carax from a screenplay and songs written by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the art-pop-rock duo better known as Sparks, the film is both story of a doomed marriage and a remarkably harmonious marriage of sensibilities. . These sensibilities are different, of course, especially in terms of production: this is only Carax’s sixth feature in 37 years, while Sparks has produced 25 albums in five decades. But these artists also have a lot in common – emotional stealth, mercurial style, an affinity for the French New Wave – and have been worshiped and defended with much the same cult intensity.
“Annette,” who aptly derives her name from Ann and Henry’s unborn daughter, turns out to be a child of artistic love like no other. Moviegoers who fainted over Carax’s sinister romance (“Bad Blood,” “Lovers on the Bridge”) have long hoped he could make a full-fledged musical – a possibility that seemed all the more exciting after his 2012 triumph, “Holy Motors”, with his rooftop solo by Kylie Minogue and his mind-blowing accordion number. Fans of Sparks, who can be by turns fiercely loyal and strangely fickle (a phenomenon revealed in Edgar Wright’s recent great documentary, “The Sparks Brothers”), will surely be delighted that the Maels have finally made their dream of wearing their music on screen. – and in a film set in their hometown of Los Angeles, although most of them were shot in Belgium and Germany.
An insane backstage melodrama that nods to “A Star Is Born”, among others, “Annette” begins with a dizzying rise of show energy. The Maels appear, adjusting their gear and launching into a wacky act (“So May We Start?”) That becomes insanely hypnotic as Carax and his cast join them, all walking towards the camera in a virtuoso one-shot that starts inside and ends somewhere on Santa Monica Boulevard. “So can we start? ” they sing. “Can we start, can we, can we start now?” To which the only answer is, well, but yes. A beginning is born.
There’s a lot to love about this openness: a cheerful, collaborative spirit that promises to lift your spirits and challenge your expectations. (It must have been a particularly warm welcome to audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, which “Annette” kicked off this week.) But by the time the film draws to a close two hours and 20 minutes later, that promise seems to have been fulfilled. one sense and deliberately betrayed in another. It is difficult not to feel moved, even moved, by the simple improbable fact of the existence of this image: at every moment, you are held back by its crazy flights of lyricism and its magnificent images (photographed by Caroline Champetier), and by the mixture of sincerity, irony and Sondheimian dissonance which animate each verse sung.
But soon after, a chill creeps in, darkening the melodies of the film and tipping a once glorious love story into a spiral – a veritable Mael-strom – of alienation, loss and regret. The bright twinkle of the city’s neon lights fades, and the action moves to the enviable, slightly menacing luxury of the couple’s home, where even the pool practically glows with foreboding. (The splendid conception of the production is by Florian Sanson.)
Even Ann and Henry’s idyllic beginnings as a couple feel overshadowed by death. Ann, who stars in a new opera at Disney Hall, embraces her character’s nocturnal disappearance with a great passion that her audiences find cathartic. Henry, on the other hand, thwarts his audience’s desire for easy laughs, sometimes openly thinking about what we really mean when we say a comedian “kills.” What makes his conclusions so gloomy is that you’re never quite sure he’s kidding.
And so the warning signs are there from the start. But so is a true feeling of love and mutual desire, which finds its most tender expression in the incantatory quality of the lyrics and the quavering beauty of the actors’ voices. Both actors have shown their singing skills before – Cotillard in numerous recordings and the movie “Nine”, Driver in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Marriage Story” – though never on such an emotionally and narratively demanding level.
“We love each other so much / We love each other so much,” Ann and Henry sing as they wander through the woods, speed down a road, and make passionate love (not all at the same time). Putting a wickedly literal twist on the familiar euphemism of “making beautiful music together,” “Annette” pushes the conventions of shattering form into song boldly and sometimes hilariously to their limits.
From time to time the spell breaks, sometimes on purpose. A sympathetic conductor (an excellent Simon Helberg) steps in, singing about his devotion to Ann and his suspicions about Henry. Nuggets of exposure are distributed in satirical Hollywood news clips, interrupting the music and speeding up Ann and Henry’s journey through marriage and parenthood. They name their baby girl Annette – a little Ann, of course. Personally, I could not help but think of Marion Cotillard and “puppet”, an association triggered by the known love of Carax and Sparks for puns and by the fact that Annette takes the form of a remarkably moving puppet.
From there, the spirit races: Could Annette be a distant relative of “Annabelle” or perhaps “Anomalisa”? Are we watching a horror fantasy, creative anxiety meditation, or homage to the cinema past, rendered in fleeting glimpses of old LA theaters and gloriously cheesy rear-projection effects? Is it a corrosive remake of that much sunnier showbiz romance, “La La Land,” with a #MeToo-era jab against Hollywood’s toxic masculinity? Besides, could it also be a darker riff on “Marriage Story”, as the central relationship goes south and the fate of a child is at stake, at the mercy of a another Driver character who has a devouring sense of self?
If so, the film can’t help but seem captivated by what it criticizes. Cotillard is still as bright as ever, but this is not his film; she doesn’t belong to the sweet precocious Annette either, despite the title, her wooden form perfectly reflecting the way her father sees her. No, the film is owned by Driver, who is credited as a producer, and who has rarely appeared more imposing in his physique, more inexhaustible in his capacity for rage and deception.
You can see why filmmakers love Driver, like so many filmmakers; he’s the rare actor capable of embracing Sparks’ talent for unsettling, at times impenetrable comedy, as well as Carax’s dedication to tragic romantics throughout his career. Sometimes he looks as dangerously tortured as Kylo Ren, and when he dons Henry’s hooded robe or motorcycle helmet, you could almost swear he’s channeling this intergalactic villain, this time engaged in a war of the stars of a different kind.
All of this reinforces the feeling that “Annette” could take place in an elaborate hall of cinematic mirrors – perhaps even the same as “Holy Motors,” which, like this film, has a soft spot for monkeys, limousines and the city. green color. But where this deranged masterpiece had an unlimited sense of the imagination that seemed to widen by the minute, the emotional and aesthetic possibilities of “Annette” seem curiously to tighten as the film progresses. progresses: in the end, he’s painted himself in a poignant corner, a it sounds like the logical endpoint (if that’s the word) of the punitive story of glory and futility that Carax tells. He is the reigning poet of the films of crazy Love, and here he shows us the bitter reality – more tragic than comic – of what happens when that love is lost.
Rating: R, for sexual content, including nudity, and for language
Duration of operation: 2 hours 20 minutes
Playing: Opens August 6 for limited theatrical release; starts August 20 on Amazon Prime Video