When Martin Scorsese says that superhero films are not “cinema”, he is not referring to their storylines, but to their modes of production: the overmanaged, studio-controlled exploitation and the protection of – wait for it – the “intellectual property” of a franchise. But artistic freedom is not just the absence of contractual constraints; just as important is the inner freedom, the willingness of the director to make a film that runs the risk of thwarting the commercial conditions of its production. Even outside of studios, many filmmakers work as if something like a studio had arrived in their heads. Leos Carax’s film “Annette”, a musical based on a story by brothers Ron and Russell Mael aka Sparks, who also wrote the songs (with additional lyrics by Carax), is a brilliant film in many ways and amazing in many ways bold, but not entirely satisfactory – it does not re-introduce the possibilities of cinema as comprehensively as the best Carax films, because the studio in Carax’s head is denoted by its star, Adam driver.
Above the opening credits, a voice that sounds like Carax prompts viewers not to “sing, laugh, clap, cry, yawn, boo or fart” during the film and reminds them that ” breathing is not tolerated during the show, so please take a deep last breath now. ”He is the first onscreen presence in the film, rigging the board at a recording studio in Santa Monica that features Sparks, Carax’s real teenage daughter , Nastya Golubeva Carax, is in the background and he calls her over when he wants to ask the musicians to start. They begin – with a song “So May We Start,” which echoes the director’s gentle request – and leave the studio in an extended procession, which is followed by the trio of the main actors of the film (Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg) with a quartet of background singers and a whole entourage who marched through the streets in a relaxed rhythm rt. Driver and Cotillard receive costumes and transform into their characters, who then go to concerts – Henry at the Orpheum Theater and Ann at Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.
This is the culmination of the exuberance and discovery of the film, a raspy and joyful introduction to a sullen tale of male vanity and arrogance, a tale of doom whose tragedy has been ruled out and turned into a sober nihilistic tale of wanton destruction – along with a moral one Message of good deliverance. The story is sparse, and most of the drama that is anchored in and around Los Angeles is portrayed along with the singing of songs that mostly evoke the characters’ states of mind rather than dialogue. Henry McHenry (Driver), who appears as “The Ape of God”, is (as the unnamed host of the show explains) a “slightly insulting” and “world famous” stand-up comedian who met and fell in love at the beginning of the action with Cotillard’s character, an opera singer named Ann Defrasnoux. (Helberg plays her companion.) Ann and Henry soon get married and have a child, a daughter named Annette, but the relationship ruins him personally and professionally. He feels unhappy domesticated and reacts to it by being grossly offensive in his act. As a result, his career collapses as Ann’s career rises, and he lets go with indulgent, ruthless, angry rage, leading to an accident in which Ann dies. Annette, who brings up Henry, turns out to be a child prodigy, a supernaturally gifted singer who exploitively turns Henry into a public spectacle and world star. But (to avoid spoilers) Henry’s unsatisfied anger, in his desperate need to keep Annette’s show going – and to feed his ego – turns to crime.
Henry is at the center of the film, but his position in it is strangely ambiguous. “Annette” is an antipsychological representation of a Dostoevsky figure. In this respect the film is similar to one of the greatest of all films, Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket“From 1959, in which the willful defiance of a philosophical criminal finally finds a purified and sublimated redemption through love in a final scene of historical power – which expressly reproduces the last scene of” Annette “. While Bresson’s protagonist gives insights into his motifs in his dialogues, Henry in his stage screams and in his clear and simple dramatic deeds only sparsely hints at the jumble of his inner life. His songs or arias offer little inner portrait, only the most obvious explanations of motive, with the exception of his references to “the abyss” and his grave mistake in looking into him – comments of a hand-swinging indeterminacy that both glorify and trivialize the antihero.
This dramatic mistiness invites clarification in the performance, that is, in the essential collaboration between director and actor. This relationship is the core of “Annette”; it is also indicative of why this film, for all its virtues, falls far short of Carax’s best. I remember reading an interview with Carax decades ago in which he said the greatest privilege in filmmaking is working with actors. He has made the careers of several greats, given Julie Delpy and Denis Lavant their first leading roles and catapulted Juliette Binoche into the cinephile firmament; From the beginning and in repeated collaboration, they were incarnations of his artistic vision, which he filmed with transfigurative freedom. In “Annette” the equation is reversed: Driver (who is also a producer on the film) is a star, not one of Carax’s. The director has said he cast Driver on “Annette” after seeing him in his groundbreaking role on Lena Dunham‘S “girl. ”But the film’s shooting was delayed until Driver could fulfill his Star Wars commitments – and meanwhile he has starred in films by Scorsese, the Coen brothers and Noah Baumbach, among other. Driver represents the myth and power of mainstream Hollywood as well as the enduring artistic tradition of cinema, and that double aura seems to get in the director’s way. The character of Henry may be derisive, godless, argumentative, even contemptuous, but Carax treats both the story and the actor in particular with deferential and deferential treatment. This gives the impression of presenting Driver without transforming him.
Part of the problem lies in the nature of Driver’s strengths as a performer. Lavant, the star of several Carax films, including “Holy engines“From 2012 is a virtual chameleon whose transformations are first and foremost physical, like the silent film actors like Lon Chaney and Emil Jannings. Lavant is also a literal acrobat; it is on the move even when it is at rest. In contrast, the originality of Driver’s performance style lies in its classic Hollywood solidity: Like Robert Mitchum or Robert Ryan, Driver is always tirelessly himself, reflects the visions of the directors he works with and sends them in turn in the form of his own built-in form. While with Lavant the element of danger is internalized and symbolized and is equally well emphasized through drastic or no make-up, with Driver it is externalized, dramatized and literally embodied, a direct correlate of realistic action. Driver himself addressed the paradox of his performance in “Annette” and said: “Even if it feels surreal, I can’t play surreal.” And that’s true – the transformation of Driver and the revelation of Henry’s inner life fall entirely on Carax ‘ Shoulders, but Carax never gets close enough (both literally with the camera and figuratively in the drama) to break the familiar (albeit glorious) mannerisms and bend the actor with the director’s own gravitational field.
Carax approaches the Mael brothers’ songs with as much awe as Driver does, and this, too, proves to be limiting. In a way, a musical is the toughest test of a director’s artistic performance, because the performance of music is resistant to directorial inventions – musicians do so much of the artistic work that directors often give in to the temptation of neutrality, the mere documentary recording, with theirs cinematic images do not stand in the way of the musicians’ art. For most of “Annette”, Carax films the actors, who mainly sing in long travel shots that hardly reveal any personality of the actor or director. Carax does not allow the actors to appear or seems to burst through the screen; he cannot even cope with the exertion of singing. The sound of the accompanying instrumentalists is added to the soundtrack as in classic Hollywood musicals, and the effect is neither radically documentary nor radically stylized. The filming of the songs has an obligatory character, respectfully depersonalized. Instead, most of “Annette” can be summed up in that killer word that suggests the self-denying subordination of the direction to the script and the dictates of a franchise or a literary source: illustrative.