Annette ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I might have an easier time talking through than writing about my first response to Annette, but both prospects feel intimidating. I'm so grateful that Carax tenaciously treats cinema as a particular art form, not only exploiting its unique capacities but innovating new ones with each movie. I appreciate his willingness to take such risks with the overall structure and with individual scene shapes in Annette. I admire the gumption of staging this story of passion, death, and protracted, walloping guilt as a sung-through musical, albeit a frequently frustrating one, with unsteady voices and, to my taste, fitful-at-best songcraft. I liked the idea and often the experience of a La La Land as remade by Sweeney Todd. I actually like a lot about Annette, especially in ways that are tough to articulate or even recapture the morning after. Most of my pleasures had to do with in-the-moment responses to individual shots, cuts, shifts in rhythm, jokes, colors, patterns, major and minor eccentricities, and nutso extravagances. I also felt impatient with a good deal of the film, especially regarding the title character's arc and a good bit of the final hour, though there were elements to admire throughout.

What I mostly feel is sad and a little spooked. In ways that are palpable early and only grow more obvious, especially if you know Carax's life and work, Cotillard's character is an obvious stand-in and ever-closer lookalike for Carax's romantic and artistic partner Katerina Golubeva, whose death in 2011 was elliptically announced. A decade later, no cause has ever been specified. Annette unfolds as one of the world's loopiest, most singular documents of haunted longterm bereavement, but it's more than that: a humid and purposefully discomfiting probe into culpability. Carax has structured the story and the film to blur lines between feelings of guilt, which may or may not be self-imposed, and direct, bloody-handed facts of guilt. He has also built Annette as almost equal parts surrealist concoction (impossible to receive as truth-telling) and as morbid confessional (if a person tells you who they are, believe them, even or especially if they trounce up their deposition with a veneer of performance art).

By the end of Annette, as corpses and courtrooms abound, and Driver looks just as much like Carax's dead ringer as Cotillard looks like Golubeva's, and as the daughter acquires a new voice and a new material reality (albeit never unfiltered through Carax's point of view), Annette felt almost too painful to watch. It also feels weirdly implicating of the viewer's own complicity, whether or not we're enjoying a film that deliberately vacillates between unbound entertainment and grim effrontery. How despondent and self-indicting this artist appears, even as he retains some hold on his imaginative genius. How eerily compelled to muck around in O.J. If I Did It... waters, almost as tricky to stomach if he's not actually admitting anything as if he is, which itself could mean any number of things. How impossible to guess how this all feels for the actual daughter he shared with Golubeva and is now raising alone. She is the film's dedicatee and appears early and late in Annette, both times by Carax's side, having been reimagined through the body of the film as an accuser, an inanimate object, and something in between.

Carax, with his made-up name, his owned and disowned lineage of mega-wealth, his tendency to turn harrowing production narratives into rubbernecking PR hooks and personal mythology, has always pushed the edges of both exhibitionism and self-concealment. Annette is not necessarily his most "extreme" film, however you define that. Even more than Pola X, though, it requires you to sit with the artist's own semi-scrutable contradictions. Sometimes I couldn't help sympathizing. Sometimes I sat there terrified of whatever next shoe might drop, before or after the film ended.

If you ever craved the feeling of watching Umbrellas of Cherbourg, channel-surfing E!, dropping acid, and reading In Cold Blood at the same time, this is your now. If you ever wanted to sit across a sheet-metal table in a locked room with a brilliant, cryptic, porcupiney artist while he aired his own demons, weeping from one eye and winking with another, Annette hears your call. "Don't mind the fake blood on the floor," Annette keeps saying. Maybe the movie can't help itself. Maybe it's saying something different than it sounds like it's saying. Maybe when gruesome sorrow arrives in your life, in queasily public/private ways that involve different forms of intimacy on both sides of that knife-edge forward slash, that's the material you're left with to sculpt or frame or orchestrate into art. Maybe sometimes survivor's guilt is so strong, and maybe self-loathing is both the core of your problem and the only thing that feels like release, that you wind up producing schizophrenic cinema that feels at once like a lightshow, a mugshot, and a knot of cosmic wormholes.

Maybe Annette, which in some ways feels like Carax's most broadly accessible movie and is squatting right there on Amazon waiting for anyone to cross its path, is also his definitive statement on how little we can know what someone else feels, or is, or has done. The truth is, I did mind the fake blood on the floor. Especially because every time Carax pointed to it, I didn't see any blood at all. Conceptual art! Fooled me again! That prankster! I was sort of enjoying myself! But—I did smell a dead body, and he knew I did, and I knew he knew I knew, and for whatever perplex of reasons (why? why?), this was exactly where he wanted me.

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