Tropic Sprockets / Annette

By Ian Brockway

From the incomparable Leos Carax (Holy Motors), “Annette” is a story in music from the opaque New Wave band Sparks, featuring Russell and Ron Mael. Though the film echoes the rock operas of Ken Russell, specifically “Tommy,” “Annette” is in a class of one and has a unique, melancholy and anxious rhythm all of its own.

Henry (Adam Driver) is an insult comedian with a gift for ill-fitting offensive poetry. Half Andrew Dice Clay and half Eminem, Henry is a big ungainly, slovenly and sloppy male. He constantly drips bodily fluids, sweat and spit. He smokes as he shadow boxes and jumps rope, in between bites of a banana. Henry snarls, holding his audience in contempt and they love him for it. In one jarring scene, machine gun fire hits the stage and Henry drops dead in a heap of flesh. The audience screams in terror.

Ann (Marion Cotillard) is a famous opera singer, the pinnacle of excellence, an alluring sonic bird. Her audience hangs on every note; she is a princess.

Henry is riddled with self-doubt. To unwind, Henry dresses in black and leaps onto his motorcycle. Man and machine are fused into one Cimmerian instrument, born of the night to shock, cause panic or tease death. Henry hides his face smiling only for his love Ann.

Back at home, Henry and Ann are quiet and intimate. The dour expression of Henry, resembling a living Grinch, is replaced with sweetness, light and the innocence of a child.

The two lovers have a baby girl. Look closely and you will see that her joints have wooden pegs: the baby, Annette, is a puppet. And that’s not all.

Henry suddenly loses his comic mojo. Ann rises to fame.

The staccato songs are incantations and heard together, they have a percussive halting rock and roll rhythm that persists in the ear.

Adam Driver, an actor known for giving his all, is wondrous yet again. His face is a rictus of torment. His torso, his arms, his large feet and his fingers all combine to make a strange machine. Henry is clumsy, tipsy anger given animation, a malevolent male cartoon. One witnesses the full breath of Henry, (from Romeo, to a punch drunk performer, to finally, a catatonic shell in prison) and the Devil’s mark on his neck goes from trifling to severe—a Me-too scarlet letter.

Borrowing from many sources, from “La Piscine” and Albert Camus to Pinocchio and Little Red Riding Hood, the film is nothing short of a noir fairy tale.

There are masterful scenes. In one, a ghost melts seamlessly within Henry’s naked and fragile body. There are accents of “Lost Highway” here as well as Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” All is satin and shadow.

The puppet manages to be both disturbing and beautiful. Annette’s anemic face, as if made from balsa wood, cocked to one side, both amazed and saddened by the carnal greed of her father. When Annette finally shows her face in human form (as Devyn McDowell) the girl’s intensity is demon-like and terror-inducing.

Marion Cotillard is perfect as a Diva scorned, giving her siren voice its full potency.

Though its moody jangles and sardonic surrealism might put off some viewers, “Annette” should be applauded and given full rites as a visual poem. It is colorful, ambiguous and propulsive, potent with darkness and sound. And in unsettling tones throughout, the work can be seen as a meditation on the year 2020.

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