There is a provocation of ghostly intent in the spirit of Jean Vigo’s underwater siren from L’atalante (1934) for Ann (Marion Cotillard), who dies on the stage every night, and is awarded with grandeur and applause. She is hardly present, a wafting bit of smoke, stricken with tragic feminine shading that cinema has worn as fashion since films were silent. She is so very in love with her husband Henry (Adam Driver), but she knows he is a man, physical down to his moniker “The Ape of God”, insisting upon de-evolution as a stand-up comedian who tells jokes about blowjobs in gas chambers, and is greeted to in her mind by a chorus of women who warn of his anger. McHenry hangs himself upon the stage with a microphone noose as the sing-song melody of ha-ha-ha-hahaha is forced upon his patrons who must bear witness to his masculine self-destruction. Dancing before he arrives on stage he appears like a prize-fighter in the vein of Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta, who departs from the screen punching at nothing at all, and demanding he is not an animal, unlike McHenry who wears the simian tag with pride. Ann and Henry are desperately in love with another, but something is wrong. The California coast is on fire.

Leos Carax is a filmmaker of gigantic personality, much like his other two co-stars, the great Adam Driver, and the recently Lionized musical act Sparks. Carax is a relentless sort, inserting himself into the skin of Driver, who bears resemblance to the director in the closing act, and intoxicating his frame with a frantic quality. If it were to slow to a crawl the entire production would let loose a secret that is better left hidden behind a constantly evolving rash of images that employ technique as diverse as the musical theatre of Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) and TMZ’s prodding nosiness. It is a great honour then to Driver, who is among our finest working actors, that Carax allows himself a moment of conventionality when capturing McHenry’s stand-up, because he knows Driver’s body is immense in suggestion. Pinging from masculine and feminine role-play he kills his wife by tickling her to death, and screams as if he is being sent to his God, as he did as a priest who was sent to the gallows in Martin Scorsese’s Silence. It is tempting to say that this is the greatest benchmark of Driver’s career, but he is also the same actor who created something legible in Disney’s final, disaster of a Star Wars.

It is like drowning and then coming up for air to be gifted a film like Annette in the pandemic period of motion pictures. It is almost like being reminded that God exists and heaven waits on the other side of the end credits. Tell a friend. Annette is as personal as it is strange, complete with an angelic marionette in the form of Ann and Henry’s offspring, who could have brought the world together during the European Super Bowl, only to sing that her father was a bad man instead. There is no love without narcissism. “I” love you so very much. And it is there where the film achieves a true, ugly honesty. The loneliness of cinema; where we whisper our secrets into the space between cuts, and feel something physical, ape-like, and guttural in the needy begging of men who ask, “do I not deserve love?”, of the ghosts they’ve made of women.

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