Annette ★★★★½

You've got to respect a film that manages to provoke the thoughts "I hate this fucking garbage" and "is this the greatest film of all time?" within the same sitting. Despite my intense hatred for Holy Motors upon seeing it nearly a decade ago, Carax's latest has struck so strong a chord with me that I'm beginning to doubt my past self. Annette is profoundly strange and unexpectedly resonant while also managing to be the funniest film I can remember watching in a theater. 

The opening voice over and musical routine are cheeky, they're fun, and they bump up against the fourth wall, but they're hardly an indication of what's to come. The early symbolism is inelegant, but effective. Cotillard chews an apple, straight out of the oldest story in the Book, while Driver stuffs his mouth with bananas and dubs himself "The Ape of God." They are two artists, two sides of the same coin. One is base and one is refined, but they are both sacred. We see them each ply their trade-- the comedian, Henry, is provocative, enigmatic and, most importantly, not particularly funny. His set is abrasive, it is nonsensical, and it is unlike most comedy sets you've seen before, but the audience adores him nonetheless. Ann's opera is more familiar in its execution-- she sings, she sort of dances, she "dies." It feels correct in a way that Driver's performance does not, though it is no less artificial or nonsensical. 

Carax and the Maels are probing into the viewer's tolerance for artifice and prompting examination of their own biases as they pertain to its application across genre and media. That Annette is a musical then winds up being critical to what it strives for. Musicals are arguably the most artificial of the popular narrative genres. You don't have to search too hard to find someone who dislikes them because they can't accept the idea of characters singing out their thoughts and feelings, but Annette takes this to its extreme. The most basic expression of affection gets condensed into six little words and made into the recurring love theme for the entire film. The media becomes a Greek chorus singing out pertinent plots beats. A man sings his lines as he gasps for his life. The commitment to artifice is quite often hilarious, sometimes darkly so, eventually expanding past the page and into the meta-text. At some point, the joke shifts from any of the deliberately dreadful material the Maels may have put on the page to the simple the fact that Adam Driver is on a stage delivering these lines while miming these absurd actions and, further, the knowledge that thousands of horned up men and women the world over have paid to see him do it (an appetite which Carax satisfies one thousand times over).

That it is so wildly funny does not inhibit its ability to probe effectively. It begins by calling into question manufactured divisions between high art and low, but the central metaphor is laid bare and prodded so thoroughly within the first half hour that it begins to seem as if the film has reached the end of its thematic runway... And then Annette is born. Annette is creepy and hilarious from her first minute on screen, but she is also the ultimate escalation of the film's examination of artifice. I laugh at her, I literally pump my fists in excitement every time she is on screen, knowing full well that she is ultimately a test. She is a mission statement. This film says, with her introduction, that it is determined to make you invest in her despite yourself. The unabashed artifice of it is irrelevant. If the art is powerful enough, if it wields the force of true cinema, nothing else matters. For me at least, the mad lads absolutely do it. After all, is an orchestral arrangement any less lovely simply because the conductor delivers exposition as he keeps time? 

The second half of the film is much slower and a bit less interesting, but that comes by necessity as the dramatic stars begin to align. Though he briefly ventures into waters in which I absolutely do not trust him like #MeToo and "cancel culture," Carax avoids getting bogged down in these topics and adds further layers to the film's rumination on art in the modern age. What has died, what remains (only to inevitably die), and the added distance which viewers impose on themselves by their viewing methods-- all great stuff, but it is secondary. The subtext remains compelling, the situations remain absurdly funny, but the drama takes hold. Every choice Annette makes, whether her audience is all of America or only her parent, hits like peak Tyson even in spite of the inherent artifice. The final scene is devastating. It makes good on Annette in a way I could not have imagined, but most shocking is that even the asinine love theme transcends its naked utilitarianism to arrive at a genuinely tragic resolution.

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