Leos Carax’s musical “Annette” opened with a number so charming, I had to wonder if the result would be a letdown similar to “La La Land.” I’d watched Carax’s previous film “Holy Motors” and found it to be sexist arthouse Eurotrash, so to quote a franchise that just keeps growing…I have a bad feeling about this.
I eventually did come to dislike “Annette,” although the issue just might be I’m not the audience for this. (Problem is, I’m reviewing it.) I tend to dislike avant garde fare that comes loaded with seriousness, so I started at a disadvantage. But perhaps the real issue is my fear and distrust of Henry, which even Adam Driver couldn’t dissuade me from.
Henry is an extremely avant garde stand-up comedian who falls in love with Ann (Marion Cotillard), an opera singer. They start out already deeply infatuated, in the kind of relationship that has Henry belting it out even as he’s going down on her, although it probably has less to do with Carax emphasizing Ann’s pleasure than provocation. They marry, but hit an impasse shortly after the arrival of their child Annette, who is played by a puppet so creepy she makes the “Twilight” baby look normal, although at least in this case she’s supposed to look weird. It’s enough to make that Joan of Arc heavy metal rock opera seem normal.
The thing is, if you’re a woman who works anywhere near the entertainment industry, you know Henry already. The brooding guy with grand claims to edginess, who can seem loving until things don’t go his way, or nobody else “gets him.” Henry fits that image to a chilling degree, which makes him naturally unfit to consider others and adapt his comedy style accordingly. So when he goes to dark places that repulse even his audience, his star begins to fade while his wife Ann remains as beloved as ever. Add a child who requires him to think of someone other than himself and it’s the perfect storm, revealing his toxicity to full horrifying effect: he cares for nothing and no one and is willing to put his nearest and supposedly dearest in danger while remaining determinedly oblivious to the harm he causes.
When everything really goes to hell, Henry’s regret is still not that he hurt Ann, but that he doesn’t have her. And this is a woman so angelic she’ll laugh at his jokes while she’s in labor, so screw all the other weird shit; this is something I can’t imagine a woman doing in any scenario. Even more insulting is when Henry’s monstrosity is unveiled for Ann to suffer for it, she too is transformed, silenced, becoming a literal monster who haunts him.
It’s terrifying stuff, and only a filmmaker like Carax could make this feel like you haven’t seen it before, even if that impression can’t last for the entirety of “Annette.” Because we have indeed seen it, both on-screen and off, something which even Carax’s wildly singular flourishes can’t obscure. In fact, sometimes “Annette” feels too singular, out of place in English rather than Carax’s native French. It would be easy to dismiss it as nonsensical, but the stakes are simply too high, especially when it’s Henry who retains not only the focus but the last word. Such a film and premise can only be tired long before it ever premieres.