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Annette brings toxic masculinity to the musical rom-com

Leave it to French filmmaker Leos Carax, art rock duo Sparks and Adam Driver to cast darkness on the most upbeat genre.

The saccharine unspecificity of love stories lies at the heart of Leos Carax’s American debut, Annette. It’s the story of a successful comedian who falls in love with a beautiful opera singer. Together, they have a child named Annette. Even before the child is born, though the love affair goes sour, Henry (Adam Driver) feels suffocated by his relationship to the gentle and soft-spoken Ann (Marion Cotillard). After the birth of the child (a genuinely astonishing marionette), the rifts and resentments only grow. It’s a familiar tale that becomes transcendent through song. 

The film begins quite literally behind the scenes as Leos Carax directs an orchestra. The first song from the Sparks soundtrack, “So May We Start,” opens the film. The cast and crew begin in the recording studio and make their way to the streets of Los Angeles. If there was any mistake, this film is about more love stories than it actually is one, and the pseudonymous city sets a scene of transformation and illusion. We are entering the fantasy world of Hollywood.

The film begins with two parallel performances; the comedian and the opera singer perform their equally successful shows. While not nearly as committed to song as Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), the film will often become a point of reference throughout the unfolding narrative. Not only in terms of musical style, though it’s obvious that the work of Michel Legrand has a significant impact on Sparks’s work in the film and beyond, but also aesthetically with the colour-blocked compositions and, of course, narratively.

Much like Les Parapluies, Annette examines the love story between an unlikely duo. “Counterintuitive, baby/And yet we remain,” they sing as they walk through a field early in the film. The song “We Love Each Other So Much” goes from an idyllic outdoor landscape to the bedroom where the couple makes love in carefully arranged tableaux. Their differences, seemingly, inconsequential in light of their passionate love for each other.

But, what is love? Really? Is it butterflies rising in your throat, or is it something else? Only the early parts of Annette tackle the Hollywood rom-com plot, which soon gives way to something much darker. Adam Driver, as Henry, comes to symbolize an element of American manhood that boils over with resentment and self-centredness. Power and control remain tantamount to his self-identity. In stark contrast to the way Jessie Ware sang about love in “What’s Your Pleasure” (“I give you love, you give it back to me”), Henry makes it so that he is impossible to love and therefore, when he’s finally ready to give it back, those around him are unreceptive. The centrality of love within the film necessitates reciprocity, and Henry only takes it. 

Driver, perhaps the modern equivalent of Robert Mitchum, finds a balance between un-handsome allure and brutality. His barrel-chested presence evokes a leading man from previous eras. Carax seems well aware of his screen persona — often cloaking him in light echoing his roles in the Star Wars franchise. While it may be a stretch to assume that the film means to dismantle or explore the fandom that has arisen around “Reylo,” it wouldn’t be unreasonable to make the connection between the romanticization of toxic masculinity in popular American films/stories and Annette

Annette moves beyond the scope of most Hollywood love stories and encompasses marriage and parenthood. It moves beyond the comforting thrill of the honeymoon phase into the aftermath. Far more than a love story between a man and a woman, this is about a child, Annette. 

Unfolding over many years, several different marionettes play the growing child. The decision evokes the unreality of the film, which is not meant to be taken at face value, but rather in dialogue with the other love stories we tell. The artistry of puppetry is also astonishingly poetic and uncanny. It feels paradoxically more alive and present than any human child could be. 

Without question, Annette will not please everyone. Audiences who prefer naturalism and don’t like musicals will likely hate this film. Even if you like musicals, your tolerance for Sparks will also play into your love or hate of this film. Yet, even though it’s potentially grating, there’s no denying it is a tremendous and daring work of art. It’s bold and impressive, an inspired work by one of cinema’s greatest living filmmakers. ■

Annette opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 6.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard star in Annette, directed by Leos Carax, with music by Sparks

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