Leos Carax is the cunning anarchist of French cinema whose exits are regrettably few and far between. Now you’ve broken the cover with this insane barking fantasy, an almost entirely sung musical tragedy created with Ron and Russell Mael from Sparks, a band once thought to be relegated to Top of the Pops YouTube clips from the ’70s. But that now has a moment, thanks to this, along with an upcoming documentary about them by Edgar Wright called The Sparks Brothers, and indeed their appearance in a Viz comic with the great socialist philosopher – Marx and Sparks.
Ron and Russell make their first appearance here in a recording studio with Carax behind the glass. “So can we start?” the director demands. And they start off they do, with Maels, Carax, their stars Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver and the entire cast singing as they march out of the studio and onto the streets of downtown Los Angeles, ready to begin the completely bizarre action.
This film gives us the fanaticism of Cavalcanti’s ventriloquist doll from Dead of Night, James Mason’s self-hatred from A Star Is Born, the desperate father-daughter dysfunction of Georges Franju’s Faceless Eyes (to which Carax referenced in his latest film, Holy Motors) and perhaps most obvious is the strident sadness of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. By the way, let’s not be too snobbish with Andrew Lloyd Webber: the title track of “Love Never Dies” from the Phantom sequel was used in a movie by none other than a world cinema luminary than Abbas Kiarostami.
Driver plays Henry, an aggressive comedian in Los Angeles with a controversial reputation and a fading career, fluttering backstage as Jake LaMotta in a boxer robe, smoking a cigarette and then discarding the robe revealing a gym built body. He will bait audiences with his hostile riffs and singing interludes (for which he has a backing chorus), occasionally staging hideously bland Bataclan-style fake gun attacks on himself just to shock everyone. Of course, fictional comedians who act in movies have the same problems as fictional artists who show their fictional paintings. Is this supposed to be good or not? Well, Henry’s act is clearly not intended to be conventionally funny.
Henry is in a relationship and in love with his polar opposite, Ann, a charismatic and exquisitely beautiful opera singer played by Cotillard, whom Carax imagines splendidly alone on colossal, quasi-expressionist settings. She hails from the heights of high culture, and her reputation is jealously guarded by the opera director (played by Simon Helberg, Florence Foster Jenkins’ modest accompanist) who is not so secretly in love with her. After the performance, Ann’s bad boyfriend will show up outside the opera house on his motorcycle and take her to his beautiful house in the hills to make love. Soon, Ann is pregnant, but is troubled by rumors (or dreams) that aggressive male Henry is about to get hit with a #MeToo case.
Their relationship ends in tragedy, and there is something very unsettling about their baby, Annette, who looks like a wooden puppet and can sing in her mother’s incredible adult voice. Soon, Henry, increasingly sleepy, angry, and humiliated, dedicates himself to being Annette’s full-time svengali. Any hopes we might have had that this could end well in some way will be dashed.
Annette’s nightmarish quality comes most particularly from the “theater audience” scenes that Carax repeatedly enacts for Henry, Ann, and Annette: huge and mysterious banks of faces that are passionately transported, skeptical or mutinous. Are real? Are they a dream? There is something Buñuelian in their massive presence.
Annette is a frank, declamatory, and insane show, teetering on the brink of her own nervous breakdown, demanding that we feel her pain, feel her pleasure, and take it seriously. I think it’s not as imaginative and complex as Carax’s previous film Holy Motors, and I was a bit disappointed that Marion Cotillard had relatively little to do. But Adam Driver has an evil magnificence, that equine face progressively loses its nobility as he grows more violent and depressed and finally ages in his 30s.
And there are some extraordinary moments, like Cotillard and Driver’s duet We Love Each Other So Much as they have sex and their baby is born like a nightmare with a clown face. I can envision this as a concept album, a Broadway show, maybe a site-specific installation in the Los Angeles house shown in the movie. It’s a swoon of anxiety and ecstasy.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism