Annette ★★★★


Got weirdly choked up during the opening number, right at the point when somebody hands Driver his costume for scene one; only later, with the appearance of the title character, did I understand that this reaction is rooted in the channeling of raw emotion via overt artifice, which powers many of the movies I dearly love. If I only kinda love this one (on first viewing, anyway), it's because the Maels seem overly invested in Henry McHenry's simian awfulness, which takes too many disparate forms: hostility toward his fans, Star Is Born-esque jealousy and resentment, the exploitation of Annette. (Was also distracted by how much Henry reminded me of Tom Hanks' bitter Punchline stand-up, though admittedly it's been over 30 years since I saw that film.) Nor am I a huge fan of this particular Sparks mode, with its quasi-melodic emphasis on incantatory lyrical repetition; tunes sung in short bursts by an ensemble, Greek chorus-style, appealed more than extended solo numbers and duets (though the initially irksome "We Love Each Other So Much" gains potency when it shifts to the nighttime motorcycle ride and turns hilarious when it continues through an entire fairly explicit sex scene). In short, I tend to blame Russell and Ron for the aspects I didn't so much care for, and suspect that the originally planned concept album and/or live performance would have been a significantly lesser work than this.

Thankfully, they gave the project to Carax, whose creative fearlessness and penchant for grandiose flourishes make simplistic ideas (e.g. the stark, reductive contrast between "killing" an audience with laughter and dying for their collective sins) thrillingly transcendent. Virtually every scene threatens to collapse and implode due to the gravitational weight of its heightened reality. Despite the nonstop music, I thought frequently of Sunrise. (Also of my beloved Joe Versus the Volcano, though that's mostly because the film's centerpiece takes place on a storm-tossed ship and there's a symbolic perforated lampshade.) A lot depends, I'd imagine, on how one responds to Annette herself...though that particular alienation device has a sting in its tail, with the final scene catching me off guard—another unexpected throat lump, to match the one at the outset—in a way that I hadn't experienced since Dogville's closing credits. (Trying to be vague here, since I'm writing this before most people have seen Annette and the trailer doesn't even really allude to this bizarre conceit.) I embraced the character's ostentatious abstraction immediately, though, as an integral part of the film's constant, arresting tension between sincerity and falsity. The world has little need for yet another semi-sympathetic portrait of toxic masculinity (not that the Maels would likely describe their vision as such), but it's hard to resist one painted with such wild, vivid, expressionistic brushstrokes.

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