Leos Carax’s “Annette” is the kind of movie you doubt yourself for rejecting – a personal, maximalist, swing-for-the-fences act of bravura that is virtually extinct from the theaters. Carax has whipped up, with co-conspirators Ron and Russell Mael of the musical group Sparks, a modern fusion of opera and rock ’n’ roll meant to cut to the heart of the gulf between men and women, especially creative men with titanic egos and their wives and daughters.
Which is to say that “Annette” is one of those movies, made by highly self-conscious men, in which the filmmakers’ self-loathing is interchangeable with self-congratulation, as you are meant to cheer Carax and Sparks’ awareness of the fact that they work in parasitic industries. This sort of maler-than-male ballad is practically a genre unto itself, from the various versions of “A Star Is Born” to Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” to Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” to the entire oeuvre of Charlie Kaufman.
The setup is simplicity and contrivance itself. Ann (Marion Cotillard) is a world-famous soprano who is regularly covered in the tabloids: It’s the kind of movie in which sopranos are covered in the tabloids. Henry (Adam Driver) is an up-and-coming shock comic known as the “Ape of God.” They are opposites: She “dies” for her audience onstage while he seeks to “kill” his audience. This theme is spelled out in the dialogue, just as every other irony is underscored blatantly. For reasons that are purely conceptual, Ann and Henry fall in love. One of the songs is even called “We Love Each Other So Much,” and most of it is composed of those words, over and over.
We see portions of Henry’s routine, which embodies what’s so deadly wrong with “Annette.” He walks out in a robe and boxers, like a boxer, and proceeds to ramble on about why he should make an audience laugh. The idea that this routine, really a perversely narcissistic kind of performance art, would attract mainstream attention is ludicrous even on metaphorical terms. Driver is said to have consulted with Bill Burr and this movie could really use that comic’s dirty, taboo-shattering liveliness. Like Henry’s act, “Annette” is too obsessed with its potential functions, rather than simply being.
All of Carax’s movies are about how his life specifically interacts with cinema – the French love that sort of thing – and many of them are mysterious and beautiful. Carax’s last production, 2012’s “Holy Motors,” was a profound exploration of art and loss and aging that rivals the intensity and idiosyncrasy of David Lynch’s incomparable “Mulholland Drive.” On paper, “Annette” is very much in Carax’s wheelhouse, particularly given the presence of his daughter, Nastaya, and himself in an auto-critical prologue, but he’s overprocessed the idea of a “Leos Carax film” and freeze-dried it. For all its frenzied imagery and gimmickry, thrashing about and unconventional noodling around, the movie’s total effect is weirdly ordinary. This is another rise-and-fall showbiz story, in which a male loser deeply damages not one but two women close to him.
As over-cooked as “Annette” is, Carax seems unaware of one irony: This is a story of an abusive man destroying a woman and hurting another that reduces the women to, in one case literal, objects in the man’s story. Ann is a waif, an angel destined to fall, which is foreshadowed by her operas and endless other hints. And that’s all Cotillard is given to play: gorgeous fragility. Meanwhile, Henry allows Driver to go into full-brute mode and he overpowers the narrative. Driver is always superb and he finds the visceral truth and ugliness of this ridiculous character, but it’s an unpleasurable, not-entirely-human performance. Driver’s work feels like effort misspent.
Nothing in “Annette” is human in a fashion that exists outside of arthouse notions of music, poetry and personal cinema – though counting the in-jokes, such as the visual references to “Beauty and the Beast” and Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise,” at least keep viewers occupied during interminable passages. I longed for one spontaneous moment, for a single physical gesture that brought this vanity project down to earth.
Before their relationship implodes, Ann and Henry give birth to a child, Annette, who is played by a marionette. The juxtaposition of a puppet with human baby sounds is creepy, though you see the symbolism coming from yards away: Henry sees her as a product, a way to continue Ann’s legacy, rather than as his child, and this development rhymes with Nastaya’s appearance in the movie’s prologue. We are meant to be blown away by Carax’s ruing of his appropriation of his family while he appropriates his family. Really, though, this puppet embodies the film’s own artificiality, and this conceit is conspicuously similar to the use of puppets in Charlie Kaufman’s and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa.”
To take a page from Carax’s playbook, I will insert myself into my work. I feel as if my review is evading the issue of how deeply unwatchable I found “Annette” to be. It is repulsively self-involved and, despite Carax’s considerable experimentation, profoundly unmoving. This is the risk of personal cinema: One person’s catharsis is another’s flatulence, and for every masterpiece of the form there are 100 embarrassments. I debated losing this assignment and walking out within the first 45 minutes of a movie that runs, masochistically, almost another 100 minutes after that.
Sparks might be a cult favorite, but the band’s music is the ultimate barrier standing between the audience and “Annette.” It is too hip and clever for regular, pleasurable hooks, of course, and so it often fashions rhymes out of repetition with words that are stranded between functioning as lyrics and dialogue. Like Carax, it is too busy deconstructing art to connect with anyone outside its rarefied sphere.