2021, R, 139 min. Directed by Leos Carax. Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Devyn McDowell.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 6, 2021
Verfremdungseffekt: translated, the alienation effect. Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and political firebrand, coined the term for his technique of distancing the audience from the emotional impact of a scene and, instead, keeping them at a cool remove so that they can absorb the message. Characters announce chapters, or self-analyze, everything possible to constantly remind the watcher that this is artifice. Born of the stage, it's harder to achieve in cinema without seeming cold. Movies are built on making the implausible immersive, which is why fourth wall breaks have become the domain of comedy. Take the musical, the most artificial of all forms of film. No one suddenly bursts into song and dance, in the middle of the street, but the viewer accepts that transition in their stride, yearns for those big numbers.
Bridging that great divide between the two creative philosophies seems like exactly the kind of challenge that would appeal to Holy Motors director Leos Carax, and in his new musical Annette he focuses his signature artificiality into a film that is intensely and deliberately stagey. He squares the circle of the Brecht/Sondheim divide by adopting the conceits of opera – choruses underlining plot points, interstitial chapter cards functionally provided by inserts from the tabloidy Showbiz News – into a story of love gone awry.
But before that, he leans hard into the artifice with an introduction by his collaborators, pop experimenters Sparks, that reinforces that we are watching a performance. Annette opens with an instruction for silence, then an overture by the band who exit the studio with the entire cast in tow before the actual story starts. But by then it's firmly established that the audience is there to watch, not engage.
Behold, now, Henry McHenry (Driver), the self-declared Ape of God, a provocative comedian playing theatres, a poisonous Bo Burnham whose routine has overt nods to Bill Hicks and Tom Lehrer with more than a hint of Russell Brand's gutter-glam pretension. His new love, Ann (Cotillard), is an opera singer, and the world is agog at their relationship. The nature of their fame is different: By the time she has finally left the stage after an endless, countless number of standing ovations, he's already at the back door of her theatre, navigating the paparazzi.
The situation is reversed within Annette itself. Ann (and Cotillard) is overshadowed within the story by Henry, with Carax seemingly most fascinated with the possibilities of his combative, sluggish, sometimes explosive stand-up performances – a shadow boxing match with the audience. These monologues are the longest stretches of spoken text, and speak to the obvious tension between Carax's predilection for the stylishly obnoxious and profane, and Sparks' tendency for insinuation and subversion. This operatic venue provides a neutral ground that proves fertile for this odd but fruitful cross-pollination.
In its mix of angsty formalism and sing-along fun, Annette may be the closest that musical cinema has come to when Brecht and Weill put a knife in Macheath's hand for The Threepenny Opera. Reinforcing that idea, Driver seems to fully realize that he's not a strong singer, in the same way that Brecht saw the merits in inexperienced actors in some roles. That's no slight, because instead he plays with the power of variation within repetition, much like the Mael brothers have in recent years. (Henry may also be the most Caraxian character since the bluntly named Merde in his segment of anthology Tokyo!)
The unlikely stylish cohesion holds the film together after the arrival of a baby (a complicated animatronic voiced by Cotillard) marks a transition into a very Forties noir, as the background character of Ann's accompanist (Helberg) suddenly takes a larger role. It's an ambitious mixture of performances only recently matched by Boaz Yakin's sadly overlooked Aviva. That was a genderfluid examination of love that relied solely on an emotional connection, while Carax relies on a cool, almost arch remove. Does it add up to much? Yes and no. Unlike Brecht, Carax doesn't have a profound sociological point. Brecht's work was designed as a revolutionary call to a proletariat who had likely never seen a play before, and so he made subtext text. Carax makes films for theatre-savvy audiences who would know what the alienation effect is.