By John H. Foote
(***) In theatres and streaming on Amazon
I love being surprised by a film. After 30 odd years as a film critic and 50 as a film junkie, trust me when I say it is hard to surprise me. When it happens, it takes my breath away. Every few years comes a film that confounds us critics. We admire the work but also recognize the pretentiousness of it, the courage it must have taken to make it, the madness of it, the sheer wonder of what are seeing on the screen, the wild brash originality, as though we are experiencing cinema for the first time. If I was to make a list of the times this sort of thing has happened to me, the films would be The Godfather Part II (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), Raging Bull (1980), Reds (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Goodfellas (1990), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Schindler’s List (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), Toy Story (1995), Magnolia (1999), A.I. – Artificial Intelligence (2001), The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-02-03), The Passion of the Christ (2004), The Dark Knight (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Lincoln (2012), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), The Revenant (2015), Arrival (2016), Jackie (2016), La La Land (2016), Manchester By the Sea (2016), and The Irishman (2019). These are all masterpieces and risk-taking films that paid off.
Annette begins with such breathless wonder, I sat up in my chair and prepared to be swept away in the manner of La La Land (2016). It moves with electrifying purpose. Beginning in a recording studio, the singers and technicians chant “May we start” over and over as they spill onto the night streets of downtown Los Angeles, he boarding a motorcycle to speed through the night, ending up where his one man comedy show is being staged. Henry (Adam Driver) is a gonzo comedian, while Ann (Marion Cotillard) is a gifted opera singer across town. Like a caged panther, Driver stalks the stage doing his act, swinging a microphone on a cord like Indiana Jones swings his whip. Across town in a lavish opera house, Ann moves the audience to tears each night with her own breathtaking work. The two artists are as different as night and day yet connected by their love for each other. For the first 30 minutes, I sat, nearly giddy, watching the brilliant actors work to enact their gifted director’s vision. They bravely offer their scenes together, including a daring scene of Henry performing oral sex on Ana, singing as they do it, their songs being their primary mode of dialogue.
Henry is a Lenny Bruce-like comic, raging on stage, warming up like Jake LaMotta before a fight. He is known as “the Ape of God”, an angry young comic who does a stream-of-consciousness show, discussing anything and everything that springs to his tortured mind. Driver is always a force of nature in his work, an enormously gifted and natural actor who might be as good as Marlon Brando. Stalking the stage as though hunting, he cares nothing for his audience, searching to achieve some sort of higher truth in his art. A hurricane of emotions and rage on the stage, he moves through his show with an animal intensity, challenging his audience to challenge him, which no one, save a couple of hecklers, has the courage to do.
When finished, he hops on his bike and speeds through the L.A. night to pick up Ann, who has just finished dying onstage to the cascade of applause from the adoring, nightly sell-out audiences. Through the maze of fans and paparazzi, she sees him across the lot and goes to him. The photographers at once turn their cameras on the pair, and Henry hams for the crowd, hiding behind his helmet mask. She boards the bike, and they make their way through the Los Angeles streets to their secluded home.
Random clips of TV screens show a celebrity news program screaming about their union, wondering what she sees in him. Easy to see I suppose what he sees in her, but the other way around? Not so much. Still, they are together and marry and conceive a child, Annette.
(SPOILER AHEAD…BE WARNED)
Here is where you need to take a leap of faith. The little girl born to them is a marionette, a puppet, although they do not seem to notice. By this point in their relationship, Henry is resentful of Ann, wanting the sort of adulation she gets after show. But his comedy act is one of intense anger and rage, and he comes across as an arrogant ass. He is hard to like, even more difficult to admire, and we too begin to wonder what this lovely songbird ever saw in him. The film takes a dark turn when Henry kills Ann while in one of his drunken rages. The incident is shocking to say the least. He soon discovers his baby Annette has a spectacular singing voice, eerily like her mother, and he parades her around the globe, getting wealthy on his child’s gifts. It is of course Ann, haunting Henry from beyond. With Ann’s accompanist portrayed beautifully by The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg, they fill stadiums, all coming to see the gifted child sing and sometimes fly around the stage (told you…out there). Helberg’s character is never named, just The Accompanist, and later The Conductor. It is clear his love for Ann was pure. Henry hates him for it. Henry is finally jailed for the murder of Ana and The Conductor.
Later, an older Annette comes to see him, but she is not as before. She is bitter about the way he exploited her, and wants to go on with her life, never to worry about him again. There is a shocking evolution in Annette, and the metaphor of her being a puppet becomes crystal clear. Director Leos Carax scored a few years ago with his film Holy Motors (2012), but what he does here is truly visionary. They say we learn more from failure than success, and there are a few moments that Annette fails miserably, but I bet he learns from it. There are other moments, many in fact, that soar and are unforgettable in every way. It is not an easy film to watch and takes some risks I have never seen a director take. I cannot profess to love the film, but I will not ever forget it. Filled with stunning energy and imagery, the director gives the audience some of the more breathtaking moments in modern film, the most stunning being Ann singing on stage during an opera and the background opens up to reveal a living, breathing forest that she explores. My jaw dropped at the artistry and then the courage to film such a scene. The final sequence in which the older Annette visits Henry in prison is surprising too, as something wonderous takes place.
Adam Driver has very quickly evolved into the finest actor of his generation. The former Marine first came to fame in HBO’s Girls, the Lena Dunham show in which he stole every one of his scenes. After working with famed directors such as Clint Eastwood (J. Edgar; 2011), Steven Spielberg (Lincoln; 2012), the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis; 2013), and Martin Scorsese (Silence; 2016), he became a full-fledged superstar as Kylo Ren in the J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). With a commanding presence, he was superb as the villain of the new films, earning the fury of fans by killing the beloved Han Solo (Harrison Ford), his father and the most beloved character in the series. He would portray Kylo Ren for the entire trilogy and, like Darth Vader before him, be redeemed, this time not by a son but by the love of a woman.
From 2012-2017 he was Adam on HBO’s Girls, earning great reviews and the further attention of Hollywood. He stole Inside Llewyn Davis in a single scene, singing a goofy space song, and was mesmerizing in Scorsese’s criminally underappreciated Silence. In a very short time he was earning lead roles and plum supporting parts in films such as Logan Lucky (2017), he was Oscar nominated for BlacKkKlansman (2018) as Best Supporting Actor. Then, in Marrriage Story (2019), he gave a stunning performance, I thought the finest of the year, playing a stage director in the throes of a divorce he does not really understand. Joaquin Phoenix won the Oscar that year for Joker but no one will ever convince me he deserved it over Driver. He could be nominated for Annette if the Academy shows so much of an inkling of courage (don’t count on it) though he is more likely to be nominated for the big studio film directed by Ridley Scott, House of Gucci, due at Christmas. He continues to amaze and evolve with each superb performance and here is nothing short of astonishing.
Oscar winner Marion Cotillard won her Academy Award as Best Actress for her haunting and eerily accurate performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose (2007), a performance that shot her to the top of the A-list in Hollywood. She has since given a superb performance in Rust and Bone (2012) as a whale trainer left legless after a terrifying accident. She has continued to give an array of fine performances in blockbusters and independent films. Though she is excellent here, I felt she was underused and wanted to see a great deal more of her. That said, the film belongs to Driver.
Simon Helberg has been an interesting actor. Known best for his work as the ever-horny Howard on The Big Bang Theory, he shocked everyone with a fine supporting performance opposite Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) as her piano player. At first, he laughs quietly at her absolute lack of talent, but soon sees her goodness and belief that she has something to offer. He was a Golden Globe nominee for the performance, richly deserved. I liked his work here too, but again he suffers from too little screen time. No worries, Helberg will have his day. I do not see the other Big Bang cast making feature films with outstanding casts. He does enhance any film he is on.
So, in the end, what did I think of the film? I loved the originality, and thought the director took great chances we rarely see. But there are moments that are blatantly self-indulgent, Driver’s comedy show for one—too long, too toxic, too strange. But it has some miraculous moments that deserve to be seen. Like Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) if often soars, but just as often, does not. It is a flawed masterpiece.
Carax is a visionary who has created a demanding work of art that will evolve in stature as the years pass. William Friedkin did the same with Sorcerer (1977) as did so many other filmmakers, creating art that confounded their audience. I understand what Carax is saying and the manner in which he says it, but I also understand others may not. Pay attention, watch for metaphors and imagery, and just accept them. Go with it. Give yourself over to the film and be amazed. Annette will provoke discussion, likely furious talk, and that is a rarity for films these days.
I think the film is breathtaking, amazing, stunning but also confounding, self-indulgent, even pretentious. Look past the flaws, see the sparkle, and look deeply into the souls of the characters, because the actors do a magnificent job exposing their souls to us, Driver most of all.
Three times I have watched the film, experienced the vision. And here we go again.
“May we start?”
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.