Leos Carax’s Cannes-Winning Sensation is a Marvelous Avant-Garde Musical that Showcases Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Peak Dazzling Duet Form

by Hassan Ilahi

Is it just me or have musicals lost sounds of music in time by greasy declines?

Barring scarce note-perfect symphonies (ex. Damien Chazelle’s La La Land), musicals aren’t magical nannies with practically perfect melodies anymore due to emphasizing eye-popping nostalgia over inventive stories. For instance, Jon Favreau’s The Lion King roared CGI lions with fur-midable tails leave movie-goers scarred. Although musicals have deteriorated from popularity, cinematic historians proclaim the genre didn’t always have bad name. Despite musicals’ declining trajectories, Golden Ages History demonstrates singing and dancing onscreen once entertained movie-goers. During 1930’s-50’s, classics attained stardom through melding fantasy with reality. In contrast, today musicals have evolved into spoonfuls of sugar for digesting medicines as fantasies for facing catastrophes. Nonetheless, melodies have fleeted like umbrella-flying nannies from movies.

In a genre that’s no longer Garland-worthy movie-star it was born to be, Leos Carax’s Cannes-winning film Annette tap-dances melodious waltzes between excruciating tragedies and dream-like fantasies to rescue movie-musicals from obscurity. An ambitious, thought-provoking and hypnotic musical, it proves the genre hasn’t lost sparkling melodies. With his English-language debut, Carax reinvigorates bygone genre without excessive nostalgia. Packed with awe-inspiring cinematography, toe-tapping music and phenomenal performances, it’s a marvelous musical. Although Annette is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it isn’t flawless. It’s tunelessly paced, and struggles to humanize egotistical celebrities. Nonetheless, it offers enchanting entertainment that’ll satisfy musicals’ fans.

Set in contemporary Los Angeles, Annette follows passionate star-crossed lovers whose bonds are upended by birth of their supernatural child Annette. Adam Driver stars in the leading role as Henry McHenry, a washed-up comedian whose career has degenerated. When he marries opera-singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), Henry’s dreams are fulfilled. However, the couple’s marriage turns toxic when Ann births puppet daughter Annette. As Annette’s voice haunts Henry’s dreams, he exploits her abilities.

European filmmaker Leos Carax is no stranger to stardom. Ever since he earned critical recognition with Holy Motors in 2012, Carax has transformed into an extraordinary French filmmaker. His award-winning feature Holy Motors exhibited provocative glimpses into a movie-star’s changing disguises under multiple identities throughout the day. With Annette, however, Carax has crafted his first English-language movie-musical. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to build a modern-day musical about toxic celebrity culture, but he pulls it off masterfully. Using mesmerizing cinematography, Carax draws viewers into a celebrity couple’s loathsome marriage. Deriving inspiration from Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Carax successfully employs luscious colors to foreshadow a condemned couple’s doomed destiny. Like Clementine’s blue hair-color that signifies her erasure of romance memories, Henry’s green garb demonstrates jealousy towards his spouse as her prosperous career overshadows his. Through this symbolism, Carax foreshadows disastrous destiny awaiting celebrities with self-destructive propensities. Working alongside cinematographer Caroline Champetier, Carax effectively utilizes color foreshadowing to capture a couple’s deteriorating marriage. Carax excels at revisualizing catastrophic celebrity relationships, and his Cannes-winning feature is worth watching on Amazon Prime for this reason alone.

If stories of short-lived celebrity relationships do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Annette. Carax excels at creating original musical sequences utilizing fourth-wall breaking monologues without nostalgia. In Hollywood, modern musicals often harken toward classics for inventiveness and depend tremendously on nostalgia to stimulate emotion. This often leaves little room for originality and makes these movies inferior imitations of classics. Fortunately, though, that certainly isn’t problem with Annette. Carax wisely resists aping legendary musicals through excessive nostalgia. Accompanied by production-designer Florain Sanson, Carax effectively uses bold fourth-wall-breaking monologues to emphasize characters’ emotion in musical numbers. For instance, breaking fourth wall is employed especially effectively to symbolize emotions in So May We Start musical number. During this mesmerizing meta-aware scene, each performer introduces themselves by song-and-dance through direct audience interaction. It’s hard to not admire fourth-wall-breaking monologues that demonstrate characters’ innermost emotions in surreal styles reminiscent of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. Melding performance reality with fantasy, Carax demonstrates stardom sacrifices celebrities experience. Furthermore, Sparks’ Brothers’ score merits appreciation. Each symphony enhances storytelling and leaves viewers humming. Through extraordinary production values, Carax builds celebrities-populated world.

One must acknowledge astonishing performances. Carax’s decision to employ live singing-and-dancing works tremendously.

Adam Driver delivers one of his best career performances as Henry McHenry. Driver attained recognition for portraying dispirited husbands in domestic dramas (ex. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story) With Annette, however, he takes on his most challenging role to date. It’s not easy to portray a self-destructive celebrity. However, Driver pulls it off skillfully. Inspired by Bo Burnham’s turn in Inside, Driver crafts a complex comedian that courageously bares emotion onstage. With spellbinding expressions, he captures envy, reckless abandon and sexual desires of a stand-up comedian battling alcoholism. Not only does Driver display comedic timing, but he proves a skilled singer. It’s a magnificent multi-talented performance.

Marion Cotillard is captivating in the role of a successful singer whose prosperity turns her into a victim of husband envy. Emulating Lady Gaga’s turn in Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, Cotillard creates a compelling soprano whose success backfires on her vulnerable marriage. Like Gaga, Cotillard showcases flair for capturing conflicting emotions through her voice. Whether she’s expressing how she loves Henry so much or condemning his self-destructive alcoholism, Cotillard effectively demonstrates Ann’s love-hate relationship through singing. It’s a marvelous performance from France’s finest actress.

The supporting standout is Simon Helberg. As a compassionate accompanist pursuing appreciation, he emanates kind-heartedness.

Despite its brilliant performances, however, Annette conducts low-key fair lady melodies that can’t quite reach over the rainbow symphonies performed by the musical genre’s highest west side stories. Carax’s decision to integrate celebrity news coverage into the film is clever and unexpected, but it hinders pacing. Due to this misconceived technique, tabloid news sequences that mock Henry’s marriage aren’t always as engaging as his stand-up performances. Despite offering insights into stardom, these sequences feel suited toward gossip shows (ex. Keeping up with the Kardashians) rather than solemn musicals. Besides, the film lacks character development. For example, we’re barely given reasons to care about Ann and Henry beyond the fact that they’re a world-famous celebrity couple. Whereas this sympathy-for-celebrity approach worked for a film like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, it clashes with this film’s celebrity critique. For rise-and-fall narratives to succeed, world-famous celebrities necessitate considerable humanity. Consequently, Annette proves inadequate.

On a final note, it’s worth mentioning not everyone will love listening to Annette’s ear-splitting melodies so much. Unlike mainstream musicals, the film’s fantastical styles won’t strike chords with everyone. The movie discusses controversial topics including alcoholism, capitalism and extramarital affairs that might disturb viewers. Viewers that cannot accept a puppet-doll singer by suspending imagination won’t appreciate the film. Accordingly, Annette won’t please everyone’s ears.

Ultimately, Annette is a solid musical tasked with composing high-pitched melodies that excel its abilities. An enchanting but overambitious symphony, it demonstrates musicals still mesmerize movie-goers. If cursed celebrities can bear babies with angelic abilities, one can’t ignore possibilities of musicals making comeback even when greasy memories of singin’ in rain atop west side stories have faded from memories over rainbow centuries.

Hassan’s Grade: B+