Annette (MA15+, 139 minutes)
Every 10 years or so, Leos Carax delivers a movie that is darn impossible to ignore. Holy Motors in 2012 was a weird and obtuse homage to cinema under threat from digital technologies.
Who can forget the ride in the limo with a shape-shifting Denis Lavant? Or the scene in which the actor stalks a film set in a motion capture suit?
Pola X, with Carax's late wife, Yekaterina Golubeva, was about a decade earlier. Then the film that made Carax really famous, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, arrived in 1991 with Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant as a pair of vagrants down and out on the streets of Paris. It created a world that was unfailingly beautiful.
For a director with a 40-year career, this French auteur has hardly been profligate with his talents. Six features aren't much in anyone's language. And yet when his work appears, it is striking for its fearless creative exuberance, aching romantic power and unique vision.
With Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver as the beautiful doomed lovers in Annette, Ann Desfranoux and Henry McHenry, this musical romantic drama is all of the above. It won Carax the prize for best director at Cannes this year.
From the first moments, the key creatives are in frame. There's Leos Carax at the mixing console while the pop-rock duo, Sparks, begin the first number. Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks wrote the screenplay with Carax.
"So may we start?" the director asks. "Mais oui," is the answer in this, Carax's first English-language film. "We hope it goes the way it's supposed to go," someone murmurs. That's it. Annette is set in the world of performers where the fame their celebrity attracts and their private lives collide.
The cameras roll in one of the most fluent and enticing opening scenes I've seen. So May We Start, the Sparks' song, is taken up by the cast and crew, as they walk out of the studio into a Los Angeles night in a sweeping tracking shot that so drew me in.
Carax has always expressed a love for cinema in his films, celebrating what it has to offer. In Driver as a looming Henry McHenry, he has an actor whose performance almost overwhelms the hyper-reality, the lustrous photography and the artificial sets, dominating the film in an extraordinary physical performance.
Opera soprano Cotillard has less to do, besides die on stage every night. It's our loss that the actor's character is so under-written, but the balance is redressed when little Annette eventually emerges to take her place.
Although McHenry is a stand-up comic, he is like a pugnacious boxer onstage, a hulking figure in a green robe. Green is the colour coded as his in the film's luscious palette.
As he stalks the stage like he is searching for an invisible antagonist, adoring fans hang on every vulgar word. It shows how he can say and do anything and get away with it, which may remind you of current political populism. While there's a strong element of Gothic tragedy to Annette, it isn't devoid of the occasional contemporary reference, as in Californian wildfires and Me Too.
The romance with Cotillard's Ann, the embodiment of refinement, is a partnership of opposites. Their love song, We Love Each Other So Much, performed on a walk in the woods and while they make love, is a sunny moment that is short-lived.
The mood quickly turns dark after the birth of their daughter, Annette, a strange child, a Pinocchio-like marionette with protruding ears like her father. As Ann's international opera career ascends, Henry is left at home with their daughter, his career plateauing and audiences turning away.
After McHenry shows he is every bit as evil as a villain of Victorian melodrama, the narrative shifts from Ann's demise to a new, even darker chapter in which Carax takes all sorts of risks with a wooden puppet-girl. Despite it all, the film still resonates powerfully and becomes strangely compelling.
Annette has the cautionary elements of children's traditional fables and fairytales, those that were troubling in their dark ambiguity. Audiences may be swept away, if they are willing to get on board and let it happen.
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