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‘Annette’ Expertly Unravels the Caustic Fragility of the Male Artist

Leos Carax’s new film explores what happens when traditionally masculine men don’t get their way

Annette, the surreal new musical from director Leos Carax and the art-pop duo Sparks, has started streaming on Amazon this week. The first English-language film by the French Carax (Holy Motors), Annette follows the love story between Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard) — a world-famous standup comedian and a renowned opera singer, respectively — and the turmoil that follows after the birth of their daughter, Annette.

The film is full of the phantasmagorical quirks characteristic to Carax’s work, a la bizarre sex scenes (melodic cunnilingus in this case) and fourth-wall breaking musical numbers. Chief among its idiosyncrasies is the fact that the titular role of Annette is played by a wooden puppet, an avant-garde performance that’s played straight, used for farce and thematically ties into the film’s larger ideas of performance as existence and sincerity through artifice. 

For all its artificial elements, Annette is a remarkably raw film, exemplified by most of its singing being performed live rather than relying on overdubs, with Carax wanting “the sound to be challenged” by the physical movement of its characters, like smoking, swimming or simulated intercourse. The elements of its story look at the wilderness of the entertainment industry through the staged expression of it, like in Ann’s starring role in her opera as a woman running endangered and scared through the forest at night or Henry’s standup special positioning him as the so-called “The Ape of God.”

Show business is at the heart of Annette, with every character in its small cast being a star in some capacity. But beyond each of their individual successes, Ann and Henry’s love life is also squarely in the public eye, with the two living hidden away in a house on the forested outskirts of L.A. Interludes of Access Hollywood-style showbiz news segments document the big events of their time as a couple (a wedding, a baby, a yacht trip to help their marriage) with poppy zeal, but both Henry and Ann (and eventually their daughter Annette) form very different relationships with fame and acclaim. Henry’s relationship with his audience in particular makes a striking comment on the fragile and caustic nature of masculinity when put in the spotlight.

From our first introduction to Henry shadowboxing backstage, it’s clear he treats his anti-comedy as an act of aggression, meant to bring laughter through discomfort, unnerve his audience and “disarm people.” “I killed them, destroyed them, murdered them,” he tells Ann when they meet after finishing their respective gigs. When Henry asks Ann about her own experiences, she serenely replies, “I saved them.” While Henry views the audience as adversary, Ann sees nothing but an adoring public.

Narratively, the difference lies in their gender as represented through two styles of performance they do for their audience. Henry walks joylessly onstage in a bathrobe, expressing his deeper insecurities and performing uncomfortable skits in hope of getting laughs. It’s a career that requires the traits of assailment and raunch, both typically afforded more to men. But Ann performs dazzling arias, plays beloved tragic heroines and is revered for her poise and grace. Soon after Annette’s birth, the charming snark of Henry’s personality gives way to a more acrid bitterness as he becomes haunted by his wife’s success and acclaim. 

Furious that the public adores talented beautiful women more than nasty weird dudes who like to make others uncomfortable, Henry synthesizes an act in which he insists to the audience that he killed his wife by accidentally tickling her to death. The negative reaction to it and his subsequent meltdown reveal his more unsettling side to his audience, effectively ending his career and sending him spiraling toward a dark fate of self-destruction. But this dangerous side of him is made apparent to the audience early in the story.

Annette is rife with foreshadowing of some of the film’s darker looming moments, and at 6-foot-2 with a gaze like a raven staring through your soul, Driver is an ideal actor for looming. Even the couples’ more innocent moments — like Henry holding Ann down to tickle her — are full of foreboding movement on Driver’s part and have the atmosphere where it feels like things could suddenly break into something more dangerous. Every moment of the film, written by Carax and Russel and Ron Mael of Sparks, feels dedicated to further exposing layer upon layer of Henry’s disaffected personality.

The title of Henry’s standup special is The Ape of God, which alludes to his primal dangerous nature, the unrefined way he sees himself and references the novel The Apes of God. In it, the puerile protagonist travels the world of art and describes those he considers to be the titular apes as “prosperous mountebanks who alternately imitate and mock those figures they at once admire and hate,” an apt descriptor for how Henry engages with his wife’s art, diminishing her work onstage, as just “singing and dying and bowing.”

An early bit in the film has Henry asking himself why he became a comedian and soon his audience is asking the same question. Henry lists off all the reasons that supposedly didn’t motivate him — the allure of fame, money and women — before admitting it’s the only way he knows how to tell the truth. Needing a laugh to express honesty could be true, but Henry’s behavior as a womanizing, exploitative stage dad to Annette in the film’s second act, shows he does enjoy it.

While Henry and his audience views him alternately as a clown and a primate, Ann’s characterization by her husband, her public and herself is that of a queen. We’re given startlingly little information about who she is outside of her performing and she’s treated with saint-like reverence. Even in the context of her relationship, we only know that the couple “Love Each Other So Much” as they repeatedly sing it.

So, why did Henry become a comedian? It would seem because he hates himself. In his relationship with Ann, he sees only her success and feels completely diminished by her star rising as his fades, beginning to drink heavily and act out in rage. What Ann saw in this man when they met is unclear, but it was likely the good looks and charms he refuses to acknowledge. In giving in to his brash misogynistic impulses and viewing himself as unlovable, he truly becomes that. 

This forms a parallel between Henry and the character of The Accompanist (Simon Helberg), a passing flame of Ann who, while having dreams of becoming an orchestra conductor, primarily wants to support her in her success and nurture Annette’s growth. The Accompanist is confident in who he is and doesn’t see fame as a goal unto itself, but as a way to expand his artistic abilities, whereas underneath all Henry’s comedy is self-loathing and an inability to see his worth.

All of which is perfectly summed up later in the film when Henry drunkenly tries to seduce a group of partying girls at a club. “Hard to imagine all these fucking men,” they sing, “who hate themselves but want us to love them.”