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Leos Carax’s Annette

Leos Carax’s Annette (2021)

“So may we start?”

With this first line, sung by director Leos Carax; his cowriters, Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers known to the world as the art-pop band Sparks; and eventually, the entire cast as they spill out onto the streets of Santa Monica, Annette has opened the seventy-fourth Cannes Film Festival. The musical starring Adam Driver as Henry McHenry, an apoplectic comedian who performs in boxers and a robe, insults his audience and himself, and goes by the moniker “the Ape of God,” and Marion Cotillard as Ann Defrasnoux, an opera singer who enthralls audiences night after night by reenacting a tragic death, has thrilled some critics, disappointed others, and left a few simply confused.

Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri argues that “this astoundingly beautiful picture will stand the test of time.” But for Jonathan Romney, writing for Screen, it’s “an audacious folly that, despite the Maels’ renown for self-mocking irony, comes across as grandiose and joyless.” At RogerEbert.com, Ben Kenigsberg frankly admits that “I don’t know what Annette is, except that it’s Annette, and that it’s unique.”

Annette herself is Ann and Henry’s preternaturally gifted baby daughter, played by a marionette operated by the French puppet theater company La Pendue. “This film gives us 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) and perhaps most obviously the strident sadness of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.

Carax is a “gifted director whose sweeping romantic visions have encompassed ecstasy and anguish,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, and “he would seem in theory to be a natural fit for the movie musical, particularly one that’s a dark fairy tale about a man so consumed by love he ends up destroying it. In that sense, Annette nods back to the films of the 1980s and ’90s that thrust Carax onto the map: Bad Blood, The Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X.” But Rooney finds that this “stubbornly flat new film is a strange and discordant creation.”

Reviewers aren’t even on the same page when it comes to the lead performances. “Cotillard exudes a fragile, dreamy nervousness, and bursts of erotic rapture, in a disappointingly underdeveloped role, while Driver’s usual charm and warmth disappear in a character who’s too one-dimensionally a tortured soul in the grip of ‘the abyss . . . the dark abyss,’” writes Jonathan Romney. In the Los Angeles Times,  Justin Chang finds that Cotillard is “as luminous a presence as ever, but this isn’t her movie; nor, despite the title, does it belong to the sweetly precocious Annette, her wooden form perfectly reflecting how her father sees her. No, the movie belongs to Driver, who’s credited as a producer, and who has rarely appeared more imposing in his physicality, more bottomless in his capacity for rage and deceit.” Cotillard and Driver “have the opposite of chemistry,” writes Ben Kenigsberg, “which appears to be the point.”

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