Annette Review: Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard Star in This Enchanting Musical - VRGyani News and Media

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Friday, August 6, 2021

Annette Review: Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard Star in This Enchanting Musical

I wasn’t aware of the work of director Leos Carax until I was blown away by his 2012 film Holy Motors, and while it’s been a long wait for his new feature, he has returned with the musical Annette, which pulls from a story and music from the band Sparks (for more on brothers Ron and Russell Mael, be sure to check out Edgar Wright’s recent documentary), but continues to explore similar thematic material about how the art of performance ties into our personal relationships, and how the artist cannot compartmentalize his or her art onto the stage. The musical—a form where characters a literally performing most of the time as they sing they’re thoughts and feelings—is ideal for this kind of exploration, and while it also makes most of the observations fairly surface and obvious, you’ve still got Carax’s inventive direction, terrific performances, Sparks’ catchy music (“So May We Start” will be stuck in my head for weeks), and a disturbingly expressive puppet to carry you along.

Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) are a hot celebrity couple. He’s an acerbic stand-up comic with his show “The Ape of God” and she’s an acclaimed opera soprano. They deeply love each other and then bring their daughter Annette (mostly portrayed as a puppet) into the world. However, Henry is hit with scandal of past abuses of women and his audience rejects him while Ann’s star continues to climb. As Henry’s envy of his wife continues to grow, it eventually consumes him, his family, and what’s left of any soul he might have had as he turns to exploiting Annette’s gift for song with the help of The Accompanist (Simon Helberg), who reluctantly goes along with the plot because of his past love for Ann. But even this new attempt at performing cannot sustain the greedy, insecure Henry.

RELATED: Edgar Wright and Sparks on Their Inspirations and Forging Their Own Creative Direction

With Annette, Carax is a puppeteer who very much wants you to notice the strings. The film leans into all of its artifice, not in a showy, pretentious way, but because it’s part of the point Carax and Sparks appear to be making with regards to how our insecurities inform our interpersonal performances. Both Henry and Ann are literal performers (the literal and the figurative are constantly intertwined in Annette, which can make it a bit overbearing at times), but they’re also performing for each other. They sing “We Love Each Other So Much” (the film’s romantic anthem) as they stroll through idyllic scenery and when they’re making passionate love to each other. Everything goes to the surface, and nothing can stay buried even though performance is in its own way a twisting of the truth. Nothing can be made literal, so it must be filtered through the artifice of the actor, and Annette does this right off the bat with “So May We Start” as a way to acknowledge you’re about to watch a production, but even here Carax and Sparks ask us, “But where’s the stage you wonder? Is it outside, or is it within?”

The answer from Annette appears to be that it’s both. This entwined nature of the external and internal performance informs the entire plot, and that makes the movie enrapturing despite its clear weaknesses of how literal it’s willing to get. For example, Henry’s exploitation of Annette’s gift means he’s using her as a puppet, so she’s also literally a puppet so that the film doesn’t repeat the same sin it’s accusing Henry of committing. This means you’re drawn to two incredible actors like Driver and Cotillard interacting with a large, wooden marionette, and yet even here, it’s a really good marionette! That puppet is very expressive! But the use of a puppet also hints at a kind of innocence and guilelessness possessed by Annette to contrast against the machinations of her duplicitous and conniving father.

I imagine in the first twenty minutes or so, you’re going to know if you’re with Annette or not, but I admire what Carax is laying down here, and doing so unabashedly. One could argue that this is artistic self-indulgence, but I would counter that artistic self-exploration mixed with a little humility is essential (“So May We Start” also notes that the authors are “a little vain.”) because Annette is not a movie about how fame is hard, but rather that trying to split yourself along artistic self-expression and romantic intimacy is almost impossible. When you reach out to an audience like Henry does, the veneer of comedy is the only barrier between him and an abyss because he doesn’t want people to know the real him. What does that do when you’re asked to love another person and show them who you are? What will they think of you in your darkest moments? If art is a lie that tells the truth, and performance is art, can any relationship be built on trust if we’re merely performing for each other?

I like that Annette is willing to play with these ideas even if it does so in an occasionally obvious way. The style of Carax’s direction and the strength of the performances (especially from Driver, who is like no other actor working today in both his range, vulnerability, and the choices he makes) make Annette a singular experience, and, like Holy Motors, is definitely not for everyone (I can only imagine what a casual viewer will think when they’re browsing through Amazon Prime Video and decide to pop this on). But if you’re willing to go along with the ideas that Annette is broaching, you’ll get an enchanting, melodramatic, earnest exploration of performance as identity and identity as performance.

Rating: B

Annette arrives in theaters on August 6th before hitting Amazon Prime Video on August 20th.



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