French Surrealist Leos Carax realizes that pop culture has broken apart. His new movie Annette is a deconstructed rock opera about that spiritual disintegration, told through the guilt-ridden, ultimately incompatible passions of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a Los Angeles performance artist, and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard, singing by Catherine Trottman), his coloratura-soprano wife.
The opera mocks and exaggerates itself, starting with Carax sitting behind a music-studio console, smoking and fiddling with technology just like the elder Jean-Luc Godard in Histoire(s) du Cinéma. He’s recording the opera’s score by Sparks, the Ron and Russell Mael brothers cult band that specializes in irony, alienation, and sarcasm. Carax, always an impish talent even though he makes a movie only once a decade, takes Sparks’s irony seriously, gathering his crew and cast for the opening number. This self-conscious approach to Henry’s self-deprecating stand-up comedy routines and the pathos of Ann’s tragic roles on stage and in life, conveys Carax’s share of contemporary artists’ discontent.
The hipster couple’s doomed marriage results in an offspring who inherits their performing talent and internalizes their anxiety: Baby Annette (a doubled performance, featuring child actress Devyn McDowell) represents the consequence of modern family dysfunction. Carax critiques this misfortune — the sum total of Millennial strife — by evoking unexpected operatic feeling while conveying the conventional moral structures that still define Henry, Ann, and Annette’s relations to one another. Despite Carax’s effort to uncover the era’s ugly cynicism, his aesthetic effects in Annette are, scene by scene, wondrous.
At first Carax seems to have been out-odded by such avant-pop as Polyphonic Spree, Spike Jonze, the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, and even, God help us, La La Land. Annette displays some of the worst aspects of our broken culture, centering on Henry’s monologues — his show The Ape of God blasts uncomfortable, sociopathic truths about the world and himself: “Muslims hate Catholics, Tutsis hate Hutus, and everybody hates the Jews.” It’s repulsively outré, like watching Twin Peaks, Part 2. But Henry’s audience heckles and chants in green-tinted iris shots, becoming a Greek chorus whose reprimands sing out the objection in our heads.
This is peculiar satire for an era of showbiz conformity and the type of artistic narcissism found in such PC, anti-pop performance spaces as The Shed. Carax gets too close to elitism, especially in casting Adam Driver (Gen Z’s Rags Ragland) as his misogynist, hubristic protagonist. It follows his smarmy roles on HBO’s Girls and Marriage Story and the melodramatic clichés of that Ronald Colman–Shelley Winters backstage noir A Double Life (1947). Yet Carax’s filmcraft transcends the unworkable idea. His framing accentuates Driver’s threatening physical force, in contrast to his immature pathology. Henry and Ann’s candid erotic relations precede their vague, then violent, disconnect, but when Carax turns it into dream-metaphors (a montage of Othello, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Norma, La Traviata superimposed over Henry biking down a lonely night road), the bravura sequence is astonishing. It says more about our cultural and psychic sexual traditions than about this piddling marriage.
Carax’s most audacious effect is Baby Annette herself. The character and concept derive from Charlie Kaufman’s obsession with puppetry in Being John Malkovich and Anomalisa but go deeper. Carax conceptualizes the miracle of birth, pondering this generation’s relation to procreation, parenthood, fealty, obligation, loyalty, love, and the future. However, the art concept never rises to the theistic query of François Ozon’s delightful fable Ricky. Instead, Baby Annette epitomizes freak celebrity. Inheriting her mother’s voice, she levitates at a stadium half-time show, surrounded by drones and captured on cellphones and tablets around world — 81-plus million views on the Internet.
Baby Annette’s fame contrasts with our era’s lovelessness, leading to the film’s climactic father-child reunion and the nearly devastating guilt-and-innocence duet. These themes make Annette a companion piece to the examinations of postmodern art in Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux and Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, which Caroline Champetier’s intense and glowing photography evokes. Annette’s imagery is stronger than its music. Sparks’s rock is lively but never as good as Pete Townshend’s rock opera Tommy, especially when Sparks turns into Philip Glass serial style. The musical difference only recalls that Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) was even more imaginative, more energetic and exhilarating.
Still, Carax has got what it takes. His sense of beauty and romance rivals those high-art practitioners Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (Parsifal) and Lars Von Trier (Dancer in the Dark). All Carax’s films are overlong (this one has the particular longueurs of opera), but one waits for the visual — cinematic — epiphanies. If you’re a cineaste, you care about Carax’s caprices and trust his inexhaustible explorations and serious dedication to art.