Annette ★★

To put it pithily, Annette is consummate nonsense. This is part praise but mostly pejorative: yes, the film is well put together, beautiful in a painterly sense. But, it is also just rather irritating. It spirals out, crafting a narrative on the fly that is unable to clasp to any real thematic impact or artistic aim. It is spectacle cinema, and it does deliver some treats for the eyes, but even the spectacle feels somewhat muted – undercut by a freewheeling silliness that is too arch to work.

Giving a narrative summary of the film feels pointless. There is semi cogent through line about a man’s fall from grace and how he uses others along the way, this being Henry McHenry (played by Adam Driver). This descent features his wife, Ann (Marion Cotillard) and their baby (born part way into the film) Annette. This baby has the look of a marionette, an aesthetic that mostly exists just to be weird and is half heartedly included in a message about how she is used by her father. This visual matches those later moments but is not established well enough, her being born as a marionette makes her exploitation seem deterministic, or even natural, in a pretty troubling way. You are left with the point, as with so much in this film, that it is just there to be strange, weird and different.

Oh, and the film is a musical. It is in the operetta form, though mostly a rock operetta, with music by Sparks (the brothers also wrote the screenplay). The musical moments are the moments where the film works. Not all of them, of course – some of them don’t work at all – but any successful, or transcendent, moment works because of the musicality. In all honesty, the best moment is the opening five minutes. We begin with a playful and meta sequence where we burst from reality into fiction and the possibilities of the film seem open. We are greeted by the director (Leos Carax), his daughter is there, he passes over to Sparks and a song bursts out of this. The song is ‘So May We Start’, a wittily deconstructive piece that sets the tone and establishes a self-aware and formally dextrous film. The visuals take us from those making the film to those in the film as we are washed away into fiction. And then this level of creativity never resurfaces.

Annette is a weird film, but it is an irritating kind of internal weirdness. It feels weird for weird’s sake. It is a real step down, in almost every way, from Carax’s fabulous previous film, Holy Motors (a true modern masterpiece). That film felt driven by purpose, a film in which you thought anything could happen but that clearly cohered. The style was also outlandish and in concert with what the film is doing. Annette is appropriately theatrical in look. A lot of atypical choices are used to create this sense, the lighting and colour grading gives the film the texture of an oil painting (almost). It is stunning but it is only in conversation with the form of the piece, not its reality. The story is not theatrical, the setting is not theatrical. The film as a whole feels limited by a realist setting in which things do not get too outlandish. Yes, there are chorus numbers of crowds singing along, but there’s always a limiting sense of verisimilitude. The layers of reality and playful manoeuvrings of the opening never return and we feel like we are on a very linear ride. There are experimental devices at play, the narrative is experimental in terms of being atypical as a story, but the film does not feel experimental. It feels oddly static, oddly restrained.

This is all such a shame and it is not the limit of the film’s issues. If it is about anything, and the film is so unfocused that it loses a real grasp on a ‘something’, it is about male toxicity. The heart of the film revolves around a man who claims to be looking into the abyss and overcome by it. This is his poetic facade for his patriarchal domination. He is a man who becomes more and more unlikeable as he uses all around him to further his aims. It is about how men demand a spotlight and will use anything to get it, and will forsake the consequences that will come with this. It is about male entitlement. These are worthy themes but the expression is hypocritical, as female roles are pushed out of the narrative and our film becomes yet another spotlight for this man. An exposure, perhaps, but not one that goes anywhere or does enough to counteract indulging in what it critiques to form its statement.

At points, the film works. There are singular sequences that are brilliant. It just fully commits to being this theatrical piece and becomes irritating. The overly expository sung-dialogue is part of the form but it is not used satisfyingly. This would be countered by the singing being wonderful, but it isn’t. Aural pleasure can be gained from the instrumentation but the singing is mostly just fine. We are just left with a lot of exposition. So, while the film is a worthy and interesting experiment, it just does not do much. It is far too long, it is far too indulgent and it commits to a form while not quite matching that form’s expectations. It is an interesting failure, but it is a failure.

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