Songs​ by Sparks (or the Mael brothers) include ‘When You’re a French Director’, ‘Edith Piaf Said It Better Than Me’, ‘Angst in My Pants’, ‘Life with the Macbeths’, ‘Falling in Love with Myself Again’ and ‘I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall for All the Crap in This Song’. Any of these phrases could serve as the title for Leos Carax’s new movie, Annette, his first excursion into English-language cinema. This isn’t so surprising, given that the Mael brothers wrote the script as well as the music and the lyrics, but it’s still possible to marvel at just how apt they all are.

‘Je ne regrette rien’ would be a good title too, since the main character, Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), is a man who does terrible things but only feels sorry for himself. He does say, at one point, ‘Sure I’ve sinned,’ but that’s just a claim to generic humanity. More often he sings lines like ‘There was so little I could do.’ Some of us might think killing two people is doing quite a lot, but no doubt standards vary. McHenry is a famous stand-up comedian who does a lot of lying down, and whose main trick is to offend his audiences into laughter. What else are they going to do? His stage name is the Ape of God. God in a bad mood, as Kafka would say.

When we first see the ape perform, he is in presentable – that is to say manageably bad – shape. He is wearing a boxer’s dressing gown, complete with hood, and he struts around the stage waving his microphone with great panache. The audience loves his bullying display of sour philosophy. He says things like ‘I’m sick and tired of making you laugh.’ The next time we see the show things are very different. McHenry has run out of nasty ideas and he is getting desperate. What has happened? Well, he has fallen in love, got married and lost touch with meanness. When he finally finds a story to tell the audience it’s about killing his wife – literally tickling her to death. We have seen some of the tickling in another scene, and it does go well beyond simple mischief, even if the wife is laughing. This is quite a funny story in its dark way, funnier than a lot of the stuff we heard earlier, especially as it’s not true. But the audience can’t take it. They boo and yell. McHenry’s decline as an artist begins.

He’s still singing, though, because this is a musical. Some lines are simply spoken, but no one gets very far before breaking into song. The opening number sets the tone. We are in a recording studio and a band fronted by the Mael brothers is ready to work. They ask ‘So, may we start?’ and then, for the next four and a half minutes, sing a song called ‘So May We Start’ accompanied by the leading actors. This isn’t quite the beginning of the movie, since we have already heard Carax tell a friend, ‘ça va commencer.’

Later, McHenry’s idea of an explanation for the life he has lived is to trill the following words to a tune:

Imagination’s strong
And reason’s song
Is weak and thin,
We don’t have long.

There is a childbirth scene in which the nurses and doctor sing ‘Breathe out, breathe in, breathe out,’ while the mother-to-be groans and laughs at the same time. We see more violence and gloom in this film than we expect from a musical – it’s something like a Gothic version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg – but this is part of the movie’s ongoing argument, its questioning of the idea of a show.

McHenry’s too happy marriage is to an opera singer. He thinks that all she does is sing and die on stage – and get greatly admired for it. She is Ann (Marion Cotillard) and at one point she sings about her long preparation for singing opera, but McHenry doesn’t consider this and fixates only on the applause she reaps night after night. Carax, in a wonderful scene where he seems to separate himself most fully from the Mael brothers and the plot of the movie, gets Ann to perform a version of his question about spectacle.

Right at the beginning of the film, even before ‘So May We Start’, and while the credits are still running, we hear Carax addressing us as if we were a live audience. We are to behave ourselves and not make noise: ‘Breathing will not be tolerated during the show.’ This way, we can prove that the show really is breathtaking. Ann’s role is rather to incarnate what is heartrending, and the polemical suggestion is that this may be all that opera does: kill the heroine with the appropriate amount of orchestration.

Of course, Carax is thinking of visual orchestration too. We see Ann alone, a tiny figure surrounded by pillars taller than the screen. This is supposed to be a stage, but it seems too large for any indoor location, apart from a movie set. Ann wanders among the pillars, singing a sad, rather trite aria. All the songs in the film are pretty trite, but that’s part of their awkward charm. They parody pathos and sentiment and then smuggle them back in under the guise of mockery. Ann steps from the abstract theatrical world into a forest looking remarkably like the green place where she and McHenry sang a lover’s duet a few moments ago. In terms of plausible realism, this setting has to be part of the infinite stage, but when Ann moves from the forest back to the boards, and we finally glimpse, in the distance, the orchestra’s conductor and the audience, we see that she (or Carax) is indulging in the movie magic of treating separate photographed zones as if they were part of a single space. This is what the cartoon character does at the start of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when he steps from his drawn universe straight into a studio of chairs and cameras and wires. And when we see Ann in close-up we realise that her white dress has been marked by long, stylised lines of blood, and that she is dying, as in a vampire movie. She will do the same thing again the following night.

There are many repetitions in the film, reminders that this show, like others, is only a show. But what does ‘only’ mean if a show can make fortunes and cause deaths? Two other moments stood out for me. A conductor, a former lover of Ann’s, talks to us while he is conducting, letting us in on his intimate feelings. This would be just another narrative convention if he didn’t keep interrupting himself – saying ‘Excuse me a minute’ – because the music requires his full attention, before returning to his disclosure. And right at the end of the film, McHenry crosses a room and suddenly seems to catch sight of us tracking him. ‘Stop watching me,’ he says, as if we, or the camera, had been doing anything else since the film began.

Perhaps the most brilliant move along these lines is the casting of a puppet in the role of the child that is born to Ann and McHenry. She is called Annette and she inherits her mother’s voice. Even as a tiny child she sings beautifully, and is taken on a world tour by McHenry who brands her a ‘miracle’. But is the miracle that a three-year-old can sing like a grown-up diva, or that a puppet can sing? Or the idea that, as the child of an opera star and a stand-up comedian, you could achieve even the semi-humanity of the puppet? I don’t believe Carax and the Mael brothers are asking us to allegorise here – perhaps they think they have allegorised enough and would prefer we relax rather than delve further into schematic interpretation. But certainly they leave us with plenty of entertaining questions – and questions about entertainment.

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