Double Feature

Voices August 17, 2021 

On Annette and Respect


nnette, Leos Carax’s first movie in nine years, is a musical of a piece with films like The Boy Friend (1971), All That Jazz (1979), Pennies from Heaven

(1981), and Dancer in the Dark (2000) — which is to say that it’s a musical that likes using song and dance as tools to poeticize despair, exhaustion, and tragedy much more than it does (as is the norm) different forms of euphoria. As expected from a director as chronically outlandish as Carax — the type of filmmaker who once unforgettably had an eye-patched character waterski down the River Seine amid a fireworks display for few reasons besides why not — it also likes to constantly push against musical orthodoxies as we typically recognize them. It’s like nothing I’ve seen; it only resembles those earlier-invoked movies in mood.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in 2021's "Annette."


Annette opens with its cast and the composers of its music — the lovably strange sibling rock duo Sparks — playing themselves, marching down a street and asking viewers, unprotected by the fourth wall, if they may “start.” (The sequence begins with a cameoing Carax hitting record in a studio and ends with lead actors Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver slipping on wigs and zooming off to the sets on which we’ll first meet their characters.) The songs, generally pretty good and once in a while excellent, continue being regularly comically overliteral rather than prettily rhapsodic. One of them has a couple singing “we love each other so much” over and over again in the course of a romantic evening together. The drama often reads as hypothetical, like it’s commenting on something. Though roundly impassioned and compelling, the performances seem to be shaping up between quotation marks. The title character, for 90 percent of the movie, is played by a sad-looking wooden marionette. Annette is artificial in ways one of the most artificial of genres never is; Carax seems to be laughing at how pronounced it is. 


You don’t exactly get swept up in the wonderful-to-look-at Annette emotionally, though it does make you feel something — maybe a transcendent form of bemusement? You more so get swept up in its oddball spectacle, thrilled by how Carax is going to next snub his nose at convention. The snubbing inspires, in equal measure, awe and laughter — laughter usually because some of his audacious images and ideas are so bizarre that you aren’t sure how else to respond. The musical becomes a doughy plaything in Carax’s hands. The shapes he sculpts the form into, while not consistently pleasurable — the movie isn’t trying to be feel-good — are at least always interesting. Carax’s unwieldy mind is the star of the show. We’re meant to delight in his way of seeing. Though their styles don’t particularly resemble one another’s, Annette can at times put you in mind of the early movies of Jean-Luc Godard. Not just because the wig Cotillard wears for the early section of the movie resembles the boyish bob actress Jean Seberg famously wore in Godard’s breakthrough, Breathless (1960), but because one of the core ambitions seems to be outright deconstruction — treat genre itself like a fencing partner, its conventions to be aggressively challenged.


Annette is about a romance and the tragedies which bloom from its premature end. It’s between Henry (Adam Driver), a stand-up comedian, and Ann (Marion Cotillard), an opera singer. They’re already in a relationship when the movie begins, and it has presumably been a tabloid fixture for a while. When they greet each other with an embrace at the end of a show, it’s a press event; a weekend vacation on their yacht becomes a buzzy story for the local entertainment press (the two are based in Los Angeles) to report on. We know little — and understand little — about what drew them to one another. They’re like a theoretical couple — a beauty and a beast, perfect as a film’s nucleus because a dysfunctional couple is historically usually more compelling to watch than an effortlessly harmonious one.


Ann is naturally gentle (she views her art as a beautiful form of salvation) whereas Henry, familiar to audiences as a provocateur who will pretend to get shot to death as part of his on-stage act, is instinctively aggressive. He regards stand-up the way a boxer might an opponent — something to be pummeled, something to eventually be at his mercy. He wants to “kill” people. We infer things between the couple will go wrong by the looks in each person’s eyes — the way they’re singing — during that aforementioned sequence where they’re repeatedly tell-singing one another that they love each other “so much.” Ann seems to have full conviction in what she’s saying. But Henry, in certain phrasings, suggests doubtfulness. The consistent green of the pool in their home’s backyard hints at an elemental impurity in their shared life, too. 


Ann and Henry get married and have a baby — a girl they name Annette. But parenting only rubs underlying problems raw. Their fame doesn’t help. Ann gets more popular while Henry becomes increasingly maligned, not least because, mid-movie, a handful of women come forward accusing him of sexual assault and abuse. He spirals into alcoholism; his already-strong on- and off-stage belligerence gets more consuming — eventually lethal. Driver’s performance is imposing and outsized; his voice ably flicks between bombast and carefully deployed candor. And his asymmetrical Herculeanness is perfect for a movie that is always cockeyed. Cotillard is as magnetic as ever — she recalls an angel without being cartoonishly delicate.  


While this progressively dysfunctional family is away at sea, tragedy strikes as suddenly as the storm that overwhelms their boat. All seems hopeless until it is discovered that Annette, still tiny enough to sleep in a cradle, has a preternaturally beautiful voice, just like her mother. Henry, whose career has by then almost entirely evaporated, decides to exploit the opportunity and turn his young daughter into a child star. Annette becomes an enormously popular singer who can attract chokingly big crowds at airports. By the time this cursed Shirley Temple has turned 6, she’s like a grizzled veteran, ready to enjoy the leisurely paradises of retirement.


Bear in mind that this entire time Annette is embodied by a puppet who never speaks — she only sings, and in abstractions. Carax got an astonished laugh out of me from this odd choice when, when she’s slated to headline the film’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, baby Annette is lifted to the stage by a group of drones, her marionette strings candescent in the dark. Once Annette is finally played by a real person (an amazing little actress named Devyn McDowell), it’s of course meant to be symbolic. She only appears to Henry as flesh and blood when she is finally experienced enough in life (at 7!) to reject his unhealthy protections and bewildering willingness to exploit her — when she at last seems like a person to him. I love the literalness of it. 


Annette is a classic rise-and-fall story that plays at the fevered pitches of absurdity, unequivocally about Henry’s ruin. Sometimes I wished its melodramatic story were legitimately affecting on the whole, or that its characters felt less like ciphers representative of an idea. But I admired the melted A Star is Born-ness of it all enough to not be very bothered by how relatively impersonal it feels. It’s winkingly treacly and dramatic — playfully depressing — and rousingly stylized. Though the movie, for what it’s worth, mostly fascinatingly examines its lead character’s egotism and the chasms that can emerge between a star’s persona and their person. It isn’t empty. You don’t necessarily “believe” many things that Annette does, but you do believe it when this tiny girl of its title, finally in the fleshly phase of her Pinocchio years, makes it clear at the very end of the movie how much her father’s self-obsession and refusal to recognize her humanity has impacted her. The last-minute outburst of sincerity is disarming — another intriguing subversion in a movie that loves toying, and usually successfully toys, with expectation. It’s a just-right move in a film made up of exciting wrongs.

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Annette.


n contrast to AnnetteRespect, a new biopic from theater director Liesl Tommy about the late Aretha Franklin, is resolutely safe. This beigely shot biopic is so standard-fare that you lose, almost right away, all hope of it doing

anything particularly risky, challenging to its subject’s immense legacy. It adheres to a tidy rise-fall-rise-again arc; the film’s thesis is that even though Franklin was born with a singular singing voice, it took her a long time to find one in life. Major parts of Franklin’s life aside from her music — her motherhood, activism, lifelong struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder — are so transitorily addressed that they can feel more ornamental than central. The movie is eager to cover as much ground as possible. It begins with Franklin, at 10, performing with a grin at one of her controlling pastor father’s (Forest Whitaker) celebrity-slaked parties (she always genuinely loved to sing). It ends with the twin recording of the Amazing Grace album and accompanying documentary of 1972, often considered a career apex. 


Because it’s trying to cram in a lot in two and a half hours, Respect frequently feels like it’s hurrying; scenes can feel like they’re crashing into each other. It’s more concerned with dramatizing pivotal points on a timeline than wringing meaningful insight from smaller moments. I also can’t think of a way to universally satisfactorily dramatize Franklin’s life through a biopic. Her life is so expansive, with so many different boulevards to travel down, that even a multi-episode TV show — which has already been tried out — still isn’t really enough. 


Still, Respect has a central performance containing enough electricity to make you, at certain points, temporarily forgive the film’s shortcomings. I noticed I was glad to be watching this actress in this context — an ultimate tribute to the influencer by the influenced. As Franklin (she was hand-picked by the singer), Jennifer Hudson doesn’t give a faultless performance. You can feel her almost contemplating, in some scenes, whether she is wanting to do something of her own in the performance or strictly imitate. She has trouble convincingly conveying the center, the inner life, of a woman we are hoping the movie will help us better understand. But as most will have probably predicted ahead of watching the film, Hudson is invigorating to watch when she’s reimagining Franklin’s way of achieving something close to outright godliness when she sang. 


You often go from feeling little for a scene — many play like plentifully-budgeted reenactments, especially during moments (that are nonetheless fun to watch) of musical creation — to immediately having your whole body shock awake when Hudson starts belting. When she’s redoing tentpole performances, Hudson grabs hold of the kind of musical divinity Franklin could so easily conjure. Franklin’s singing could instill in you a new sense of hope or possibility, as if she were sending a message from somewhere higher, pleading with you to find a new way of seeing. Watching the Amazing Grace documentary, for instance, itself felt like a religious experience; you’re in the Church of Aretha Franklin. Hudson musically finds something close without feeling reductive. It’d be nice if the movie around her were better — as thoroughly appreciative of Franklin’s complexities as it was her once-in-a-generation musicianship. But I savored its fleeting highs.