Annette ★★★★

It’s hard to know quite what to make of Annette, or even exactly how Leos Carax means for us to take it. It helps having seen (and enjoyed) Carax’s previous film, Holy Motors, another wild dive into pure absurdity with only a glancing connection to reality. That even had something of a musical number, though it’s still no preparation for this full-fledged musical melodrama/fantasy; here we have a clearly defined story, characters with emotional arcs, and actors bringing the conviction of high drama to even the most ridiculous conceits. Which might all be part of the joke. Or maybe it’s not a joke at all? In any case, Annette has to be seen to be believed, and I was mostly delighted by its singular mix of silliness, pathos, and surreal artificiality.

Opinions may vary as to how much of this fever dream is outright parody. The songs by the Sparks brothers certainly toe the line, often just repeating a line of exposition over and over— “we love each other so much” or “we’re travelling around the world”— as if written by aliens trying to replicate musical storytelling. There’s also no effort to make the actors’ singing voices palatable (save for when Marion Cotillard is performing onstage), though there’s a kind of emotional integrity to keeping their performances live. Frankly, this isn’t a cast album I’ll be listening to anytime soon. But there’s still an endearing, go-for-broke goofiness even to the speak-singing, and the staging is consistently inspired. I was especially tickled by the Greek chorus taking several surprising forms, from audience members to doctors to police investigators.

And then there’s Annette herself, a creation so nutty that we’re clearly invited to laugh, even as her presentation proves to be the canniest thematic choice. The way that the sincerity remains an open question is part of what makes the film so bizarrely compelling; 140 minutes is a long time to commit to this level of heightened madness, as if daring you to regard the story as earnestly as the performers clearly do. But scene by scene, Carax swings so mightily for the fences that he leaves realism far, far behind, in favor of the kind of boldly expressionistic touches that risk, and often soar right past, ridiculousness. (The sex scene in the middle of a song is a particularly hilarious example.) Scenes like the couple’s fateful night at sea might as well be out of a Guy Maddin fantasia, all dreamy rear projection and stylized sets.

By the end, I was immersed enough to actually find the final scene moving, mostly in how it unexpectedly pays off the conception of Annette. As impressively committed as the actors are, that’s all due to Carax; he has no use for the distinction between high and low art, comedy and tragedy, profundity and utter nonsense. I wouldn’t fault exasperated viewers for hating Annette, which continually challenges you to take it seriously (and doesn’t seem to care whether you do). But I doubt that anyone could forget it.

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