Leos Carax! You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to write about this French filmmaker whose view of life and movies is so romantic that it boils over into insanity. Then again, he averages about one movie every decade, so it makes sense that I’d have some time to cool my heels. His latest entry, Annette, opens at Grand Berry Theater and Cinemark North East Mall this weekend. It’s his first film entirely in English, and it is well worth the trip to savor this piece of weirdness.
The film begins with songwriters/screenwriters Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the band Sparks, singing the opening song “So May We Start” in a recording studio. They then keep singing while walking out into the streets of Los Angeles and leading a procession that includes the stars of the film, their backup singers, and a children’s choir. The story concerns the unlikely relationship between two highly successful show business performers: standup comic Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and French opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard, whose opera singing is dubbed by Catherine Trottmann). Hollywood’s press dubs them “Beauty and the Bastard,” which is not an ironic nickname, because Henry is a mean drunk.
If you’ve never seen Carax’s French films like The Lovers on the Bridge and Holy Motors, you may be unprepared for his irony-free utter commitment to his wacky ideas. The music is so prevalent that the movie practically is an opera, with choruses for a crowd of paparazzi photographers as well as the ob/gyn and nurses who deliver Henry and Ann’s baby Annette. (She’s portrayed by a wooden marionette. I mentioned that Carax’s ideas were wacky, didn’t I?) Ann’s accompanist (Simon Helberg) has a number about his job while accompanying himself on the piano, of course. Henry and Ann’s romantic ballad “We Love Each Other So Much” continues through a sex scene. A lot of people were hung up on this when the film played at Cannes. I didn’t find it so weird, having seen similar scenes in The Last Five Years and TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (That doesn’t make it not ridiculous, however.)
One thing’s for sure: Driver is magnetic as a stand-up, coming out on stage in a bathrobe and underwear while combining Bill Hicks’ confessional mode, Andy Kaufman’s air of possessing a hidden agenda, and Steven Wright’s muttering cynicism, though any of those men would have killed for an audience that sings in unison back at him like they do in this movie. Usually when actors portray successful stand-ups, they’re shown on a Saturday Night Live-like sketch show because sketch comedy is closer to what actors do anyway. It’s hard to teach an actor to do stand-up, but Driver has the hang of it, moving around, using the stage by playacting roles, doing comedy voices. Even though Henry’s act is a little too odd to imagine working in real life, Driver makes it convincing even during “What’s Your Problem?”, a number that takes place during a fiasco of a Vegas gig when he spews rage at the audience, which sings, “Get off! Get off! Get off the stage!” If Henry’s history of abusing women seems to come out of nowhere — which is generally how things are revealed in Carax’s films — Driver’s seething undercurrent of anger makes this plausible. I think this might be his greatest performance to date.
It sustains this movie through its lows, as the operatic conceit stops working during a scene when an argument between Henry and Ann on a stormy sea turns violent. The movie never regains its groove, even thought that mute puppet conveys the pathos in her parents’ bad marriage in a way that would likely be impossible (and unbearable) with a human child. The film begins as Marriage Story and ends as A Star Is Born, though there isn’t anything like “Shallow” on the soundtrack. The show business tragedy doesn’t take, but seeing Annette makes me feel like a birder who has caught sight of a rare and endangered species. Carax and the Maels prove to be a perfect match as artists who charge heedlessly in the direction of their creative ideas. If only more filmmakers did that, cinema would be a more interesting place.
Starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Directed by Leos Carax. Written by Leos Carax and Ron and Russell Mael. Rated R.