When Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2012, it screened just past the halfway mark of the 12-day festival -- an ideal position for Carax’s lunatic fantasy to set the festival abuzz, drawing a mixture of raves and boos and WTFs. (TheWrap’s headline back then: “‘Holy Motors,’ Holy S#*!”)
But when Carax’s new film, “Annette,” premiered at Cannes on Tuesday, it faced a tougher road. The French filmmaker, after all, has the opening-night competition slot this year, which means his new film can’t come as a breath of fresh, weird air the way his last film did. This year, he’s setting the tone, not providing the contrast.
Besides, “Annette” (an Amazon Studios release) may be bonkers in its own way, but it’s less bonkers than “Holy Motors” was. Carax set the bizarro bar very high nine years ago, and his first movie since then proves that he’s still a nutty filmmaker by turning his nuttiness into a full-fledged musical. That’s fun, for a while, and then it’s kind of exhausting, something that “Holy Motors,” with a similar two-hour-and-20-minute running time, never was.
Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard are his stars, but the movie starts with Carax himself, sitting behind the mixing board in a studio as the band Sparks sets up. (Sparks’ Ron and Russell Mael are having quite a moment these days, what with the fine new documentary about them directed by Edgar Wright.)
“So, may we start?” asks Carax, whereupon Sparks launches into a song whose lyrics consist mostly of that exact line, repeated over and over as the Mael brothers and their backup singers leave the studio and march down the street, joined by Driver and Cotillard and some choirboys and various other participants in this grandly silly overture.
When the actual action begins, it turns out that Driver is Henry, a tortured bad-boy comedian who says comedy is “the only way I can tell the truth without being killed,” and Cotillard is Ann, an acclaimed opera singer with a gentler goal. When the two, who appear to be in the early stages of a passionate relationship, meet up after their respective gigs, he tells her, “I killed them, destroyed them, murdered them. How about you?”
“I saved them,” she replies.
They’re “Beauty and the Bastard,” as one headline puts it, but they’re starry-eyed lovers: “We love each other so much,” they sing constantly in a song that starts in the woods and ends in bed. Sparks are writing songs in a mode they’ve used before: They use as few words as possible, but they use those words again and again and again. For a band whose body of work has shown a delightfully bewildering variety for five decades, it’s once again something new and challenging.
If “Holy Motors” had its main character delivering a string of odd performances with no apparent audience, “Annette” puts the relationship between performer and audience up front. Henry and Ann live in a heightened reality and theatricality, and we keep backing off to see them through the eyes of those who watch them do it.
The movie isn’t one of those musicals that breaks for songs, then slips back into dialogue; for much of its running time, almost every line is sung, and even the ones that aren’t are given a rhythm that makes them fit with the music. (Carax is hardly the first French director to do this: Jacques Demy won the Palme d’Or 57 years ago with “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” which was even more of a sung-through musical.)
Henry and Ann’s relationship begins in love and passion and quickly progresses to marriage and a baby, Annette, whose birth is set to an elaborate musical number (naturally). Annette also has freakishly large ears, faintly simian hair and arms and legs that are hinged like a marionette, which is pretty much what she seems to be. You could take it as a comment on celebrity couples who use children as props, but Carax doesn’t seem like he’s after that kind of low-hanging fruit; his is an operatic surrealism that’s not quite as persuasive as the more casual surrealism of “Holy Motors.”
But there’s also a bit of “A Star Is Born” in “Annette,” as Henry’s career goes downhill and Ann’s goes up, and then everything goes very wrong and gets very dark. By this point, what once seemed bold starts to feel assaultive -- Carax is so much of a provocateur that he turns the very idea of a musical into a weapon of sorts. And while Driver and Cotillard both have real tour de force moments, they're also limited as vocalists; 140 minutes of them singing most of their lines is wearying even in the midst of Carax’s delicious absurdities.
By the end of the movie, Driver has almost morphed into Carax physically, Annette the marionette has morphed into Annette the star and then Annette real girl, and some human emotion peeks through the excessive stylization. But Carax isn’t really interested in softening what he’s doing; Henry may tell Annette, “Never cast your eyes down the abyss,” but Carax himself keeps looking deep into the darkness.
For better and for worse, Carax never goes for half measures and “Annette” never stops being bold and weird.