Just as Holy Motors simultaneously mourned the loss of physicality from filmmaking while embracing the creative possibilities offered by digital technology, Annette is built on a seeming paradox: it plunges into layer on layer of artificiality in order to craft an emotional authenticity deeper and more affecting than it could have achieved if the entire film had been pitched at the level of classical narrative illusionism.
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Leos Carax’s Annette (2021) is at once a deconstruction of the classical musical, a reflexive exploration of the complex relationship between life and art for performers, and a scathing deconstruction of the cultural archetype of the tortured male artist. The film revisits many of the themes Carax has tackled throughout his cinematic career while also pushing his style into thrilling new areas: in addition to being his first film produced in the English language, Annette is also Carax’s first feature not to be set in his native France, and, most notably, his first out-and-out musical. For anybody with even a passing interest in Carax’s oeuvre, however, his decision to make a musical should come as no surprise. From his debut feature Boy Meets Girl (1984) through to Holy Motors (2012), Carax has demonstrated a keen interest in incorporating musical elements in his work. Many of the most memorable moments in Carax’s filmography are self-contained sequences set to music, in which the composition of shots, the pace of the editing, the performances of the actors, and the rhythm of the soundtrack are deeply intertwined.
In Carax’s early films, this interest in the musical tended to be expressed through a desire to choreograph key moments of narrative action in connection with iconic songs that exist within the diegesis: for example, the scene in Boy Meets Girl in which a recently jilted Alex (Denis Lavant) wanders hopelessly around the streets of Paris, listening to David Bowie’s “When I Live My Dream”; and the now-famous sequence of Mauvais Sang (1986) that sees the young protagonist, also named Alex (Lavant), sprint to meet Anna, the object of his desire, while Bowie’s “Modern Love” blares from a nearby radio. In his later work, Carax has gone further in embracing the musical form, as in a late scene in Holy Motors where Kylie Minogue’s Eva Grace begins to sing the wistful original song “Who Were We?” after an enigmatic chance encounter with Oscar (Lavant), alluding to a past relationship between them. Unlike in the earlier examples, backing music here emerges from a non-diegetic space.
Grace’s musical number comes late in Holy Motors, and by this point in the film, the audience has been primed to expect ruptures in the diegesis and diversions from what may seem to be the primary narrative register of a particular scene. The entire feature is a series of more or less self-contained set pieces in which a single scenario plays out. The only consistent narrative tissue is the figure of Oscar, an actor who travels from location to location in a white limo to assume different roles within different situations, many of which draw heavily from the conventions of established cinematic genres. There are references both to an audience that Oscar is supposedly performing to and to cameras that are capturing his performance, but these are never visible in the film. And it is never quite clear exactly where the “performer” Oscar ends and the “authentic” Oscar begins. There are many scenes in which he momentarily appears to drop the act – as in a seemingly intimate moment where he has a heart-to-heart conversation with his “daughter” after picking her up from a party – but these, inevitably, are all revealed to be part of the act. We see Oscar change from one costume to another, but we never get a glimpse of the man who exists underneath the costumes and the make-up – if one exists at all. If Holy Motors is a film that constantly points to the artificiality of its construction, it does not seek to insert an emotional distance between the audience and the on-screen action; on the contrary, Carax seeks to draw us into each scenario emotionally so as to emphasise the intensive labour and skill that goes into a seamless performance.
Indeed, throughout his entire career, Carax has masterfully combined self-referentiality with a sense of aching romanticism. A former critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, hired when he was still in his teens, Carax has always worn his cinephilia on his sleeve. Boy Meets Girl and Mauvais Sang both clearly harken back to the French New Wave, but Carax draws from a broader range of cinematic cultures and movements than that: Lovers on the Bridge offers a thrilling reimagining of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp; Annette features a clip from King Vidor’s The Crowd; Holy Motors borrows a music cue from Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla. Carax’s first piece for Cahiers sought to find the rough poetry in Sylvester Stallone’s 1978 wrestling drama Paradise Alley, demonstrating the breadth of the filmmaker’s cinephilia, which leads him to find value in genres that are often dismissed as lowbrow. In particular, Carax praises the intense physicality of Stallone’s vision, as well as the moments that show an expressionistic flourish, such as a climactic fight scene staged in an interior location with droplets of water leaking through the ceiling.
Carax’s films draw from a vast array of cinematic influences, high and low, synthesising them into a mature style that feels wholly personal and idiosyncratic. The fragmented, collage-like structure of Carax’s works conjures the sensation that the viewer is being plunged into a collective cinematic imaginary – a perspective of the world informed by all the films that came before while also informed by Carax’s own personal obsessions, insecurities, and desires. The spectator is perpetually called on to acknowledge the inherent falseness in the projects’ construction, as well as to consider the rich artistic heritage the artist is drawing on, but Carax’s reflexivity is informed not by a quest to detach the viewer from the events depicted on-screen, but to marvel at the beauty of cinematic creation, to appreciate the intricate design that goes into the construction of cinematic spectacle.
Carax’s first short film, the wonderful Strangulation Blues (1979), establishes a series of thematic and aesthetic preoccupations that the director would go on to flesh out in his later work. Bearing more than a little resemblance to Godard’s early short Charlotte et son Jules, Strangulation Blues takes place almost entirely in a single apartment over the course of a night, as a young artist (or at least wannabe artist) and his girlfriend try to navigate their collapsing relationship. The film is shot in high-contrast black-and-white, dips in and out of the male protagonist’s subjectivity, and is infused with an oneiric ambience. The young man is a cinephile with ambitions of making a great film but is frustrated by his inability to come up with an idea for a single image worth filming. The man externalises his rage, blaming his girlfriend for failing to act as a sufficient “muse” and inspire him to conjure majestic art. Shortly after this fight, the man dreams that he strangles her, and when he wakes up, seeing her slumbering form, he mistakenly thinks that he has killed her for real. Fearing the consequences, the man escapes the apartment; unbeknownst to him, his female companion wakes up and watches him flee through the bedroom window.
Even at this early point in his career, the seeds of Carax’s later style were already being sown: a fascination with the intersection of dreams, memories, and reality; anxiety about living up to his cinematic forebearers; a fascination with male/female communication; an impulse to incorporate elements of genre storytelling while also languishing in detours and longueurs that deviate from the ostensible main narrative thread. These traits are all present across Carax’s three subsequent features, Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang, and Lovers on the Bridge, each of which stars Denis Lavant as a character named “Oscar.” These young men are dreamers and obsessives, drawn to the fantastical side of life and capable of great poetic expression yet also prone to (self-)destructive behaviour. They are not only enamoured with art, but seem to be drawn from different genre archetypes: the romantic idealist in Boy Meets Girl, the noir hero in Mauvais Sang, and the silent comedian in Lovers on the Bridge. Yet Carax eschews standard narrative progression, instead constructing these features according to a dreamlike, digressive logic, driven more by emotion and intuition than the demands of the plot.
It is in Lovers on the Bridge that Carax most overtly combines these impulses with a thematic focus on theatricality and performance. Refusing to leave the Pont-Neuf despite extensive council renovations increasingly making his continued existence on it untenable, the homeless street performer Alex treats the bridge as his stage. When he meets Michèle (Juliette Binoche), a young woman who appears to be a vagrant but, it is later revealed, is actually a painter from an affluent background who chose a life on the streets following a failed relationship, they make the bridge a shared home. In the film, the Pont-Neuf is a space of contrasts. A transitory space that the protagonists turn into their permanent residence, it exists on the boundary between the private and the public, a harsh reminder of the central couples’ unforgiving living conditions while also serving as a space of escapism and fantasy for them. As Alex sleeps and eats on the same public streets in which he performs, there is no way to distinguish between his onstage and offstage lives; performance becomes a means, for him and Michelle, a way not only of channelling their “authentic” experiences into art, but of coping with their adverse circumstances, of casting themselves within a larger history of romanticised vagrants and tramps. In Lovers on the Bridge, as in all of Carax’s cinema, aspects of past and present are brought together in dialogue in such a way that each aspect retains its original character, while their synthesis in the director’s aesthetic schema produces an overwhelming emotional and textural effect that is fresh and new. As Elizabeth Ezra elegantly puts it, Carax “brings together different film aesthetics, and different moments in film history, to create a new cinematic space.”1
Holy Motors goes even further in self-consciously evoking cinema history while studying performance as a way of life. Alex in Lovers on The Bridge is a man who can never fully disengage from the performance, who exists in public, even during the moments of his daily routine that should be private (he turns a faucet on the side of the bridge into a makeshift shower, and removes bulbs from some streetlamps before sleeping on the hard ground of the structure as if turning off a nightlight). Oscar, in Holy Motors, is similarly engaged in a perpetual performance that he cannot disengage from, but in this case, the performer undergoes a constant stream of transformations, thus changing his body into a malleable, pliable surface. Paradoxically, the more scenarios we see Oscar perform, the more elusive he seems to be as a character. There is no “self” lying underneath the varied roles he plays; he only exists as these roles, and none of these roles – a concerned father, an elderly man on his deathbed, a secret agent – is any more “true” or “false” than another. Similarly, there is no distinction between “set” and “reality.” Because we never see the audience Oscar is performing for nor the recording apparatus capturing his performances, it is impossible to tell what parts of the city are private spaces and which exist for the act (if, indeed, any at all can be described as “private”). The resulting impression, however, is not that each scenario is a “fake,” but that every scenario is “real,” in the sense that if a scene may be convincingly constructed and powerfully performed, it can conjure an affective reaction that is just as valuable as that which any “authentic” experience may inspire.
Annette is another movie about performers, but this time with a notable difference: Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) are internationally famous. Whereas Carax’s earlier protagonists are drawn to the margins of society, performing either for their own amusement or for small groups, Henry and Ann perform in packed-out auditoriums, their faces adorn billboards, and every step of their love life is tracked by entertainment journalists (we are not given enough contextual information about Oscar in Holy Motors to judge quite how successful he is, but there is no indication that he is particularly well-known, and the diegetic landscape of Holy Motors is so abstracted from the way that the star system works in the real world that it’s hard to tell whether a profession like “actor” could even bring an individual fame). Henry is an abrasive shock comic who performs under the grandiose moniker “The Ape of God.” His routine isn’t particularly funny, but that doesn’t bother his audience, who get a thrill from seeing the depths to which his confrontational, gleefully offensive persona can plummet onstage. Before we see Henry perform, we see him preparing himself for his act by shadowboxing in a small dressing room. It’s a warm-up more suitable for a wrestler than a comedian, but we soon witness the importance of physicality to his performance style: Henry bounds across the stage in a dressing gown and briefs, his rough, dance-like movements perfectly complementing the barrage of verbal insults he subjects his fans to. Rather than telling conventional jokes or stand-up routines, Henry mimes hanging himself onstage, stages a fake assassination, and pretends to choke on the smoke emitting from the stage. All of these are tied together by his onstage personality, a gruff, surly misanthrope whose contempt for the public is only superseded by his self-hatred. Throughout his various performances, Henry openly chastises the audience for their mediocrity, expresses his frustration with Ann (even going so far at one point as to describe a violent fantasy he’s had about her), and laments the perpetual sense of dissatisfaction that he can never seem to shake. All of this is delivered with the same disaffected air; Henry’s compulsion to offset his genuine feelings of suicidal despair and longing by constantly falling back on irony and hyperbole means that his audience never knows the degree to which his mock-confessional act can be treated seriously. Henry knows this, and uses it to his advantage – he has fine-tuned his persona so that he can voice his most grotesque thoughts without anybody taking him to task for it. As Henry himself puts it at one point during his act, performing comedy is “the only way I know how to tell the truth without being killed”; the problem here, of course, is that what Henry calls “the truth” is merely the product of his self-destructive, misogynistic perspective on the world.
Henry’s act is not so much a pastiche of stand-up conventions as a radical recalibration of them. More or less all the ingredients of a standard set, in the tradition of abrasive, confessional, envelope-pushing comedians, are present: self-deprecation; sex jokes; ostensibly “ironic” racially charged jokes that allow audience members to laugh at antiquated stereotypes while simultaneously feeling above them. The difference is that Henry dismantles the average comedian’s material and recalibrates it into something deliberately fragmented and alienating. His act is based on the illusion of deconstruction – he constantly draws attention to the construction of his set and, by extension, the inner workings of the comedy industry. But this, again, isn’t so much an act of peeling back the curtain to provide the viewer with a glimpse into the film’s real production as it is an act of replacing one type of illusion with another, more sophisticated one. At one point, Henry takes out a fake contract and reads a fabricated clause that prevents him from allowing any audience members to laugh to death; at another, he feigns regret at arranging for a smoke machine to be present onstage, going so far as to fake a coughing fit – of course, this onstage “error” is just as preplanned as any of his one-liners. His act, therefore, is balanced between confessional intimacy and ironic distance to an uncomfortable degree. When everything that Henry says onstage – no matter how seemingly sincere or personal – is refracted through the lens of irony, even when he is allegedly deconstructing the very act of performance, absolutely nothing he says can be can at face value. When Henry is taken in for questioning by the police following Ann’s death, he brushes aside their concern about a routine in which he discusses murdering his wife, by stating “everybody knows my act is full of provocation.” Whether Henry had decided to murder Ann before speaking about it onstage or whether the act of speaking about the fantasy inspired him to turn it into reality is one of the film’s enduring ambiguities, but what is sure is that by spouting so much vulgar provocation onstage, he paradoxically inspires the public to lower their guard around him. The torrents of abuse he unloads on his audience have a bizarrely neutralising effect. The speech about killing Ann, although it is viewed as tasteless, is not perceived as a genuine warning sign. It is merely one of the grotesque scenarios Henry conjures through words. Henry’s career takes a dramatic nosedive because such a routine has a built-in shelf life: there is only so far he can take choreographed offensiveness before it starts to feel rote. Henry does not subvert comedic expectations to make any larger comment about the industry or the history of the art form, he does not employ self-referentiality as a means of establishing a genuine dialogue with his audience, and he does not reflect on any wider social or political issues. Henry’s motivation for performing in the style he does is purely selfish, and though his fanbase laps up his aggressive rants at first, his refusal to grow creatively means that his repeated performances can only bring diminishing returns.
As Brianna Zigler writes in Paste Magazine: “That’s the irony in the artifice of Henry McHenry, how just as there is no truth to his performance, there is no truth to his self, his life, or his relationship with his wife and daughter. Is Henry McHenry the type of person who would kill his wife by tickling her to death? Who’s to say”2
Pointedly, Henry’s performance style – brash, cynical, and full of disdain for his audience – is contrasted directly with Ann’s. While every aspect of Henry’s onstage persona is an expression of his narcissism, an attempt to aggrandize himself and add a sense of grandeur to his every emotion, Ann disappears totally into the character and the demands of the script. While Henry takes an antagonistic approach to his chosen art form, turning the conventions of stand-up inside out for no other reason than to assert his perceived superiority to other comedians, Ann embraces the traditions of the opera fully. As Megan Robinson observes, “[w]hile Henry approaches his profession with anger and violence, dressing as a boxer and prepping before the show by shadowboxing, Ann dives deep into her operatic world.”3
This isn’t to say that Ann finds it any easier than Henry to separate her offstage life from her onstage one. On the contrary, it merely means that they both have different ways of blending the two realms: for Henry, his onstage persona becomes a means of valorising his offstage actions; for Ann, performance is largely about shielding herself from the difficult truths of her personal life. The stage becomes a place in which she can shield herself from the harsh conditions of her relationship with Henry, yet, her impulse to distance herself from painful experiences and truths has tragic consequences, as it ultimately blinds her to the true extent of the threat posed by her partner.
Much of the tragedy of Annette occurs because its characters cannot separate their personal lives from their professional lives, and because onstage personas bleed into offstage reality: Henry increasingly resents Ann as her career soars while his goes downhill; Henry sours his relationship with his daughter by forcing her to perform music as an infant; Henry’s semi-accidental murder of Ann is foreshadowed by an earlier scene in which he playfully describes tickling his wife to death. The fragile line between illusion and the “real” is signalled at the very beginning of the film, as we see a group of musicians tuning up their instruments in a Los Angeles recording studio. Among them are brothers Ron and Russell Mael – better known as the rock duo Sparks – who wrote the music and the original story for Annette. The images are presented in a fragmented, deliberately disorientating way: a strobe-like flicker effect means that the flashes of each instrument are constantly being plunged into and out of darkness, and the heavy use of superimpositions makes it difficult for the viewer to orientate themselves spatially. Finally, Carax himself, sitting behind a mixing desk, beckons over to his real-life daughter Nastya, to join him to watch the performance. When the band seem ready, Carax asks them, tentatively, “So, may we start?” This spurs Ron and Russell to perform the opening bars to a song titled, appropriately, “So May We Start.” At first, the music seems to be emanating entirely from within the diegetic space of the recording studio, but the illusion is upended when Ron and Russell suddenly take off their headphones, step away from their microphones, and start a brisk march through the corridors of the studio and onto the streets of LA – though the music continues to play on the soundtrack unfettered. Driver and Cotillard then enter the scene, stepping in front to lead the procession, and are soon followed by Simon Helberg, who plays Ann’s musical accompanist in the narrative (all three are, crucially, appearing as themselves here, not as their characters). Coming behind them to complete the procession are a trio of backup singers – who will later appear as Henry’s onstage musical accompaniment – a chorus of young children, and, finally, Carax and Nastya.
The entire sequence is recorded in a single tracking shot, echoing the ecstatic “intermission” of Holy Motors. At the end of the scene, the three lead actors don their in-character costumes and go to their respective in-film shows (Henry to perform as The Ape of God, and Anne to the opera), and the rest of the procession wish them good luck. The lyrics further collapse the gulf between the diegetic and extradiegetic spheres: the singers playfully confess that they’re “underprepared” and that the budget “isn’t enough,” before telling the audience that the world they’ve fashioned exists purely for the spectator and will vanish from existence as soon as they stop watching. As in a live theatre performance, the singers then point to the sides of the screen while explaining the locations of the emergency exits, and then add that the “authors” of the musical are in attendance. In this virtuoso opening, Carax fuses the cinematic, the musical, and the theatrical, deconstructing the tenets of the musical number while simultaneously stunning us with its own technological/logistical achievement. The unbroken nature of the actors’ and musicians’ performance skews closer to the experience of live theatre, though the serpentine camera movement adds an extra dimension that is distinctly cinematic. The performers openly acknowledge the falsity of the diegetic world while wholeheartedly embracing the magic of cinematic construction. It’s an ingenious way to begin a film in which the distinction between on- and offstage is constantly challenged. After all, whether or not a sound in the film is presented as being diegetic or extradiegetic, it is all mixed into the same soundtrack; when the characters step off the diegetic stages, they are still walking on film stages; and whether the figures are presented as being Driver/Cotillard or Henry/Ann, they still exist as abstracted, on-screen constructions being consciously performed.
Just as Holy Motors simultaneously mourned the loss of physicality from filmmaking while embracing the creative possibilities offered by digital technology, Annette is built on a seeming paradox: it plunges into layer on layer of artificiality in order to craft an emotional authenticity deeper and more affecting than it could have achieved if the entire film had been pitched at the level of classical narrative illusionism. As Film Comment’s Nathan Lee observes, “For all the passion on display, the movie’s primary source of heat is an exuberant formalism. Reflexive flourishes, surrealist interludes, and blatant artifice erupt with abandon.”4 The central set piece in which Ann and Henry’s sailing trip is thrown asunder by a severe storm takes place against a green screen – the motion of the model boat Driver and Cotillard perform on does not even match the rhythm of the waves in the background – and many of the cityscapes are clearly the result of digital compositing, with the actors clearly estranged from their surroundings. And then there is the film’s most obvious act of formal experimentation: Annette is portrayed by a series of wooden puppets, each of which has poor mobility and very limited facial expressions. To see Driver, Cotillard, and Helberg act alongside an inanimate object has an inherently uncanny effect. Although the actors/characters never openly acknowledge that Annette is not a real child, the way that they interact with it draws attention to the constructed nature of the character: at one point, Driver holds the puppet in the palm of one hand, revealing how light it is; at another, Driver even sits on the marionette, a moment that, though treated as a low point for Henry, is not treated as causing significant harm to Annette.
The act of breaking down the wall that typically divides the diegetic from the extradiegetic is endemic to the musical form. Even in the classically constructed Hollywood musical, there is an unwritten bond with the audience that they will accept why extradiegetic music intrudes on-screen in events such that the characters respond to it as though it were totally natural. Musical sequences are typically inserted into the narrative as isolated sequences that contain their own internal logic, yet still push forward the plot and/or reveal significant aspects of the characters. The music – and the visuals that accompany it – at once exists within the diegetic world of the film yet emits from some unseen source from outside of it. The musical form upsets the assumption, with which critics tend to treat narrative cinema, that the illusion of a whole and unified diegetic world must be sustained to ensure spectatorial absorption; the receptive viewer of the musical accepts regular and repeated steps out of the logic of the narrative world, and readily becomes reimmersed within the plot when the number comes to an end.
What Carax achieves in Annette is to take this central tenet of the musical and elevate it to new extremes. If the viewer can accept a character stepping out of the established diegetic logic of a scene to perform a song, why can’t they accept Driver stepping out of character? Is there such a leap from introducing extradiegetic music into an otherwise naturalistic scene to having characters interact with transparently artificial backdrops? Driver and Cotillard are performers playing performers, whose offstage personalities are thoroughly intertwined with their onstage roles; there is no real distinction between on- and offstage, only the stage and the set. In a similar (but more understated manner) to Holy Motors, Annette focuses on characters who exist as multifaceted, fragmented constructions; their identities constantly vacillate between the extradiegetic actors who portray them, their respective diegetic artistic personas, and “Henry” and “Ann” as characters. In addition to this moment in which Driver and Cotillard literally assume their roles in front of the camera (it is noteworthy that this is staged as a rehearsed, carefully choreographed act, rather than as a piece of authentic behind-the-scenes footage), there are several moments in which Carax deliberately destabilises our understanding of whether a scene is happening within the diegetic world of Annette or whether it is a performance-within-a-performance: a scene where Henry appears from behind a screen door to tickle Ann is staged with the same cadence as his comedy routines; during one of Ann’s live routines, the back of the stage falls away and she wanders through a forest for a while before stepping back into the theatre; a sequence in which The Accompanist explains his background with Ann begins as an intimate close-up – leading us to believe that he is alone in the room – before pulling outwards to reveal that he is actually conducting a large orchestra as he speaks.
Moreover, many significant plot developments are communicated through one of two recurring, self-consciously artificial structuring devices: an E!-Entertainment-style broadcast that tracks the ups and downs of Henry and Ann’s relationship; and the audience of Henry’s shows, which periodically offer comments and insights into the development of events that transcend the usual function of diegetic characters. The entire film blends together authentic environments and artificial sets so thoroughly that even the streets of Los Angeles begin to resemble a soundstage. The use of alienation effects throughout the film does not distance the viewer from the depth of the despair, anger, and frustration experienced by the characters. Conversely, as Annette depicts characters who view the entire world through the lens of performance, the tension between artifice and authentic feeling is the source of the film’s overwhelming emotional power. We are constantly tasked with viewing every image as a representation, a consciously crafted artwork as well as a depiction of a diegetic environment. As Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López observe, “This is the tension between the image or picture as a plane, created by the camera that frames it; and the image as the illusion of a world, an imaginary space that invites us to enter it, join with it, dream with it.”5 This tension between the flat screen and the illusion of depth that Martin and Álvarez López acknowledge is literalised in the aforementioned scene that sees Ann push through the flat backdrop of her theatre and step into the woods. Once within this new environment, Carax’s camera rotates 360° around her, to show that the forest is, indeed, all-encompassing and not merely an extension of the set. Then, as she approaches the end of the song, a wall back into the space of the theatre auditorium miraculously appears, and Ann walks back through; the surface seals behind her, and the forest is no more. At the end of the performance, Ann mimes dying on a fabricated cliff edge, constructed on the stage, surrounded by artificial smoke. Henry watches her from backstage, first observing her performance on the stage, and then watching her on a wall of monitors as she bows to her adoring crowd. The “fake” character that Ann was portraying gives way to the “real” Ann, but Carax, again, upsets any clear-cut distinction between the authentic and the staged by abstracting the “authentic” Ann into a series of desaturated, blue-tinted video feeds. Over the first half of the film, we repeatedly see Ann mime the act of dying onstage; after she has been killed, she too enacts a series of “deaths,” either by appearing as an apparition that dissipates or by inhabiting the body of Annette during the act of singing, essentially “dying” every time the child stops the performance.
Unlike Holy Motors’ Oscar, who treats the perpetual cycle of performances that defines his working life as a staid routine, both Henry and Ann need to perform. As much as Henry berates his audience, he feeds on their attention, and when their affection for the comedian dissipates, he is unable to cope. Henry exorcises his demons onstage, and without that outlet, he descends into a spiral of heavy drinking and explosive outbursts. Oscar doesn’t need to see his audience, nor does he need to see the cameras supposedly recording him (not that he has a choice on that front – as one of the film’s most famous quotes reminds us, “the age of visible machines is over”); Henry feeds on the reactions of his spectators – not only their glee but also their bouts of shock and disgust. For a compulsive performer like Henry, if he does not have a rapt audience following him, there is no point in doing anything at all. His killing of Ann is, on the one hand, an act born of professional jealousy that she still has an audience – and therefore a reason for being – while he doesn’t. It is also an act in which he translates the linguistic violence of his act to literal violence against his wife. After committing this heinous act, Henry is able to revive his fame. The spirit of Ann embodies the body of Annette when light hits her visage, thus allowing the infant to sing with her mother’s voice. Noticing his daughter’s preternatural gift, Henry exploits the opportunity and turns her into an international star. For a brief period, Henry achieves heights of success greater than he ever imagined: he and Annette are beloved by fans all across the world, with the press branding the young soprano a national treasure.
Yet this does not bring Henry genuine satisfaction. He remains haunted by guilt over his actions, manifested in the spirit of Ann, and his desire to raise Annette to ever-increasing levels of fame puts pressure on the pair to the point that their relationship becomes irrevocably strained. For Henry, there is no escaping his unendurable torment. When he drifts into security, he cannot cope with being deprived of the limelight. When he experiences success, fame becomes a prison. His struggle thus mirrors what Martin and Álvarez López describe as the tragic paradox of the Carax hero in Holy Motors: “to be inside […] for the Carax hero, is no fun: in fact, it is sheer, unending Hell, a truly Dantean vision. And there is no longer any surrealistic fusion or transcendence awaiting him inside this spectacle; no romantic couple on an island of two.”6 If in Carax’s early films, performance functioned for his characters (carried out for themselves, or a small group of admirers) as a way to escape the drudgery of everyday life, in Holy Motors and Annette it becomes a source of constant pain and obligation; the characters in these films gain no satisfaction from performing, yet they are compelled to do it, they cannot imagine a life without it.
And in this sense, Henry and Oscar are united: perpetual performance becomes a Sisyphean hell with no grander goal on the horizon and no end in sight. Oscar’s life is flat, as he never increases his level of success or receives any rewards for his efforts, while Henry’s is terminally unsatisfying because no level of visibility or riches will ever be enough; even when he is at the peak of his popularity, he is beset by anxiety that everything will fall away from him. Both Ann and Henry become victims of the culture of perpetual performativity and star-chasing: Ann (notably killed while she and Henry are performing a “waltz” on a deck of a soundstage-bound ship that resembles a theatre stage) is forced, even in death, to perform her set endlessly using Annette as a cypher; Henry is pushed to new heights of depravity when he murders The Accompanist in cold blood to preserve the act. Unbeknownst to Henry, Annette sees him doing this, and during her next performance – an appearance during the halftime show of a hugely popular sporting event named the “hyper bowl” – she refuses to sing. As the lights go down, Annette stands completely still, to the confusion of the fans and the frustration of the crew. For the first time in the film, a character refuses to perform and derails the show. It’s a startling scene, as the near-constant music comes to an abrupt halt. After several false starts, Annette simply bows her head and makes a simple statement (one of the few lines of dialogue in the film not delivered in song): “Daddy kills people.” This assertion allows Annette to break out of the cycle of repetitious performance that she was at risk of inheriting from both her father and her mother.
Henry is convicted of the murder of both Ann and The Accompanist and winds up in a high-security prison. In the final scene of the film, Annette appears not as a puppet but as a flesh-and-blood human (Devyn McDowell). Now free from Henry’s controlling gaze and the demands of a life on the stage, Annette has grown into a real character with agency, not a prop to be manipulated by others to suit their own ends – whether it be Henry, Ann, or her intentional audience. When the pair duet, it’s the first time that Henry engages in a dialogue, rather than delivering a monologue. As Annette delivers a powerful act of self-assertion and individuality, Carax’s stark, simple staging of the scene represents, as Lee describes it, “an eruption of magic realism in reverse: a revenge of the real that cuts through the noise.”7 Annette forcibly wrestles power over the relationship away from Henry and allows the child to voice an aggressive reproach of her parents’ selfishness. Annette is carried away from the visitation room by a prison guard, and Carax lingers on a shot of Henry gazing at her longingly through the slim rectangular window, an isolated figure trapped within a frame-within-the-frame. Annette ends as Henry retreats to the back of space. He briefly looks directly at the camera, then averts his gaze defiantly. “Stop watching me,” he says, with hesitation in his voice. It seems that Henry has momentarily realised that it is his compulsion to soak up the limelight that has caused his life to become a living hell, and yet the speed with which he averts his look and hurries to bury his head in the corner suggests that the impulse to perform remains intact – he must pretend the camera isn’t there and he must beg the viewer not to indulge his ego, because he knows, deep down, that so long as anybody at all will provide him with a platform, he will slip back into the role.
Zigler, B. (2021). “An Evening with Henry McHenry: The Anti-Comedy of Annette.” Paste Magazine. Online resource. https://www.pastemagazine.com/movies/annette-anti-comedy-adam-driver-stand-up/. [Last accessed 13 October 2022]
Lee, N. (2021). “Mind Games.” Film Comment. Online resource. https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/mind-games-annette-leos-carax-adam-driver/. [Last accessed 13 October 2022]
Martin, A., and López, C.Á. (2013). “Screen and Surface, Soft and Hard.” Film Critic. Online resource. https://www.filmcritic.com.au/essays/carax.html. [Last accessed 13 October 2022].
Ezra, E. (2002). “The Latest Attraction: Leos Carax and the French Cinematic Patrimoine.” French Cultural Studies. 13 (38). pp. 225-233.
Robinson, M. (2022). “‘Stop Watching Me”: Artifice and Performance in “Annette.’” Film Cred. Online resource. https://film-cred.com/annette-leos-carax-adam-driver-performance/. [Last accessed 13 October 2022]
- Elizabeth Ezra. (2002). “The Latest Attraction: Leos Carax and the French Cinematic Patrimoine.” French Cultural Studies. 13 (38). p.232. [↩]
- Brianna Zigler. (2021). “An Evening with Henry McHenry: The Anti-Comedy of Annette.” Paste Magazine. Online resource. Available at: https://www.pastemagazine.com/movies/annette-anti-comedy-adam-driver-stand-up/. [Last accessed 13 October 2022] [↩]
- Megan Robinson. (2022). “‘Stop Watching Me”: Artifice and Performance in “Annette.’” Film Cred. Online resource. Available at: https://film-cred.com/annette-leos-carax-adam-driver-performance/. [Last accessed 13 October 2022] [↩]
- Nathan Lee. (2021). “Mind Games.” Film Comment. Online Resource. Available at: https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/mind-games-annette-leos-carax-adam-driver/. [Last accessed 13 October 2022] [↩]
- Martin, A., and Álvarez López, C. (2013). “Screen and Surface, Soft and Hard.” Film Critic. Online resource. https://www.filmcritic.com.au/essays/carax.html. [Last accessed 13 October 2022]. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid., Lee, 2021. [↩]