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Trying to explain the plot of “Annette” to someone who has yet to see the film would be an impossible feat.
The film, which comes out of the sometimes-dazzling, sometimes-absurd imagination of Leos Carax, in partnership with the musical talents of the Sparks brothers, had its world premiere on July 6 as the opening film of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The story centers on the tumultuous relationship between the dark, Bo Burnham-esque comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and the beloved opera star Ann (Marion Cotillard). The titular “Annette” (literally “little Ann”) is the pair’s young daughter, represented by a deeply unsettling wooden doll.
Audiences who enjoyed the surrealism and infamous armpit-licking of Carax’s previous Palme d’Or contender “Holy Motors” will find that “Annette” is, somehow, stranger. In one scene, an opera-singing baby flies through a football stadium to deliver the world’s most chilling halftime show; in another, Carax switches between a "dying" opera singer on a haunted, foggy stage and a comedian descending into a death-obsessed, horror-movie style comedy set. The movie’s best moments, however, come when Carax does not focus solely on these otherworldly fantasies, but instead uses them as the emotional soundtrack to a single human face. For instance, in one haunting tableau, a grieving conductor leads an orchestra that echoes his emotions back to him; in another, the camera zooms in uncomfortably close to a lover’s quarrel set against a thundering sea. It's in these moments when Carax successfully melds his gigantic, out-of-the-box imagination with tender human emotion, that audiences are left with the feeling of true cinematic magic.
It’s not easy for an operatic musical to manage that level of emotional depth, and the successes of “Annette” are a testament to an exceptional cast. The famously-elegant Marion Cotillard was a picture-perfect choice for Ann. Cotillard is tasked with embodying an archetype of the saintly, aloof, untouchable woman — but manages, even through the inherent melodrama of her frequent song breaks, to give the faraway Ann flesh, bones, and genuine feeling. Driver is similarly an excellent choice for Henry; in a spectacular slow burn of a performance, he pushes the comedian’s humanity to its limit. Even when a toxic cocktail of self-destruction and inadequacy causes Henry to lean into the “abyss,” Driver’s performance is powerful, unforgiving, and, almost impossibly, still inspires some shred of sympathy for his character.
The film’s many dramatic closeup shots of Driver and Cotillard put the full emotion of their performances on full display; unfortunately though, they can also tend towards melodrama. Amid the sea of shouted monologues and impromptu musical numbers, “Annette”’s gigantic emotions, heavy-handed symbolism, and cliche song lyrics can overwhelm the nuance. Painfully close shots of distressed characters can feel gauche when paired with Sparks’ characteristically simplistic song lyrics like the continually-repeated “We love each other so much” or “laugh, laugh, laugh.”
The film’s technical strengths also lead to a central dilemma: whether telling a story about male violence against women solely through the eyes of men is ethical. Arguably, the film’s story adheres so closely to modern guidance about how not to tell this kind of story — centering Henry’s point of view almost exclusively, for example — that it seems an intentional exaggeration, perhaps even an attempted subversion of those tropes. The female victims of Henry’s bruised ego — a “shy,” soft-spoken soprano and a literal wooden doll of a child — act, at least for the majority of the movie, as innocent, defenseless plot points taken to the extreme for the mere satisfaction of a clean metaphor. But even if these caricatures of victimhood were designed to parody or satirize a damsel in distress, and even if there are times when their innocence is compellingly complicated, they’re still wooden and saintly for most of the movie. They hardly exist outside of their relationship to Driver’s Henry, and they’re the film’s only female characters.
Though the women in "Annette" may feel familiar, Driver's Henry feels refreshingly unusual. A lot of films have already been made about male violence against women. And many have also delved into the psychology of cruel, violent men — some of which, like “Annette,” remain singularly focused on their “complicated” aggressor. But the film is a refreshing departure from such counterparts like “A Star is Born” or “Joker.” Sure, Henry’s treatment of his wife is far more explicitly destructive than Jackson Maine’s, but he too is tortured, suicidal, and unravels his wife’s life when she becomes more successful than him.
It’s all the more refreshing, then, that neither Henry’s poor mental health nor his jealousy of his wife are painted as an even semi-acceptable excuse for his behavior. Aided by Carax’s penchant to lean into the grotesque and Driver’s unsettling but grounded Henry, “Annette” is the rare film that humanizes its male aggressor without forgiving him. Particularly in its most nuanced closing act, the film subverts the idea that male violence is a natural or inevitable response to emotional discomfort. Instead, the film’s brutally honest dive into the male ego makes clear that Henry’s violence and jealousy were the result of a conscious discomfort with inadequacy. Celebrating rather than hating his wife’s success was always an option.
Once again then, Driver gets to play a deeply complicated man who moves from love to horror to despair to hope in compelling turn, and Cotillard, while delivering a riveting and aching performance, must do her best to add nuance to an — albeit self-aware — disempowered archetype critics have seen a hundred times before.
“Annette” is undoubtedly a visually stunning film with a much-needed, unforgiving portrayal of male aggression. On the other hand, it’s still a glamorous, male-directed “damsel in distress” story with mostly silent female characters opening a festival with a long history of sexism (and which previously made a “50/50 by 2020” gender parity pledge, but only selected four female-directed films out of 24 in competition this year). And as wild and delightful as its technical aspects are, it’s message can only go so far.
— Arts Chair Joy C. Ashford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joy_ashford.
— Staff writer Sofia Andrade can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bySofiaAndrade.
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