When Martin Scorsese says that superhero movies aren’t “cinema,” he’s referring not to their story lines but to their modes of production: the overmanaged, studio-controlled exploitation and protection of a franchise’s—wait for it—“intellectual property.” But artistic freedom isn’t only the absence of contractual constraint; equally important is inner freedom, a director’s readiness to make a film that risks running athwart the commercial conditions of its production. Even outside of studios, many filmmakers work as if something like a studio has got inside their heads. Leos Carax’s film “Annette,” a musical based on a story by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, a.k.a. Sparks, who also wrote the songs (with additional lyrics by Carax), is in many ways a brilliant film and in many ways an astoundingly audacious one, yet it’s not entirely a satisfying one—it doesn’t reimagine the very possibilities of cinema as comprehensively as Carax’s best films, because the studio in Carax’s head is signified by its star, Adam Driver.
Over the opening credits, a voice that sounds like Carax’s asks viewers not to “sing, laugh, clap, cry, yawn, boo, or fart” while the movie’s playing, and reminds them that “breathing will not be tolerated during the show, so please take a deep last breath right now.” He’s the movie’s first onscreen presence, manipulating the board in a Santa Monica recording studio where Sparks is performing; Carax’s real-life teen-age daughter, Nastya Golubeva Carax, is in the background, and he calls her over when he’s about to prompt the musicians to start. They commence—with a song, “So May We Start,” echoing the director’s mild-mannered request—and leave the studio in an extended procession that the film’s trio of lead actors (Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg) join, along with a quartet of female backup singers and an entire entourage, trooping in loose rhythm through the streets. Driver and Cotillard are handed costumes and transform into their characters, who then head off to gigs—Henry to the Orpheum Theatre and Ann to Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.
That’s the movie’s peak of exuberance and discovery, a riffy and joyful initiation into a dour tale of male vanity and arrogance, a story of downfall with its sense of tragedy foreclosed and turned into a blankly nihilistic tale of wanton destruction—along with a moralistic message of good riddance. The story is spare, and most of its drama, anchored in and around Los Angeles, is depicted along with the singing of songs, largely in lieu of dialogue, that evoke the characters’ states of mind. Henry McHenry (Driver), performing as “The Ape of God,” is (as the show’s unnamed host declares) a “mildly offensive” and “world-infamous” standup comedian who at the start of the action has met and fallen in love with Cotillard’s character, an opera singer named Ann Defrasnoux. (Helberg plays her accompanist.) Ann and Henry soon marry and have a child, a daughter named Annette, yet the relationship ruins him, personally and professionally. He feels unhappily domesticated, and he responds by becoming grossly offensive in his act. As a result, his career craters while Ann’s soars, and he lets loose with self-indulgent, reckless, wrathful fury, leading to an accident in which Ann dies. Annette, whom Henry raises, turns out to be a prodigy, a preternaturally gifted singer, whom Henry exploitatively turns into a public spectacle and an international star. But (avoiding spoilers) Henry’s unslaked rage, in his desperate need to keep Annette’s show going—and to feed his ego—veers to crime.
Henry is at the center of the film, but his position in it is strangely ambiguous. “Annette” is an anti-psychological depiction of a Dostoyevskian character. In that regard, the film both resembles and contends with one of the greatest of all movies, Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” from 1959, in which a philosophical criminal’s willful defiance ultimately finds a purified and sublimated redemption, through love, in a final scene of historic power—which the last scene of “Annette” expressly echoes. Whereas Bresson’s protagonist offers glimpses of his motives in his dialogue, Henry hints only scantly at the tangle of his inner life in his onstage rants and in his clear and simple dramatic deeds. His songs or arias offer little inner portraiture, only the most apparent declarations of motives, with the sole exception of his references to “the abyss” and to his grave error of gazing into it—comments of a hand-waving vagueness that simultaneously glorify and trivialize the antihero.
Such dramatic nebulousness invites clarification in performance, which is to say in the essential collaboration of the director and the actor. That relationship is the very core of “Annette”; it’s also indicative of why this movie, for all its virtues, falls far short of Carax’s best. I recall reading, decades ago, an interview with Carax in which he said that the greatest privilege in making films is working with actors. He has made the careers of several great ones, giving Julie Delpy and Denis Lavant their first starring roles and propelling Juliette Binoche into the cinephile firmament; from the start and in repeat collaborations, they were incarnations of his artistic vision, and he filmed them with transfigurative freedom. In “Annette,” the equation is reversed: Driver (who is also one of the film’s producers) is a star, and not one of Carax’s making. The director has said that he cast Driver in “Annette” after seeing him in his breakthrough role in Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” But the shoot of the film was delayed until Driver could fulfill his “Star Wars” commitments—and, in the meantime, he had major roles in movies by Scorsese, the Coen brothers, and Noah Baumbach, among others. Driver has come to represent the myth and the power of mainstream Hollywood as well as the cinema’s enduring artistic tradition, and this double aura seems to have got in the director’s way. The character of Henry may be derisive, impious, cantankerous, even contemptuous, but Carax treats both the story and especially the actor reverently and deferentially. As a result, he gives the impression of showcasing Driver without transforming him.
Part of the problem lies with the nature of Driver’s strengths as a performer. Lavant, the star of several Carax films, including “Holy Motors,” from 2012, is a virtual chameleon whose transformations are, first and essentially, physical, like those of such silent-film actors as Lon Chaney and Emil Jannings. Lavant is also a literal acrobat; he’s in motion even when in repose. By contrast, the originality of Driver’s performance style is in its classic-Hollywood solidity: like Robert Mitchum or Robert Ryan, Driver is always relentlessly himself, reflecting the visions of directors he works with and, in turn, sending them back in the likeness of his own built-in form. Whereas the element of danger with Lavant is internalized and symbolized, coming through equally well through drastic makeup or none at all, with Driver it is externalized, dramatized, and literalized, a direct correlate of realistic acting. Driver himself has addressed the paradox of his performance in “Annette,” saying, “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’s shoulders, but Carax never gets close enough to Driver (both literally, with the camera, and figuratively, in the drama) to break through 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 reverence as he does Driver, and this, too, proves limiting. In a way, a musical is the severest test of a director’s artistry, because the performance of music is resistant to directorial invention—musicians do so much of the artistic work that directors often yield to the temptation of neutrality, of mere documentary-like recording, lest their cinematic images be perceived as getting in the way of the musicians’ art. For most of “Annette,” Carax films the actors singing mainly in long travelling shots that hardly reveal much personality on the part of either actor or director. Carax doesn’t make the performers’ presences loom, or seem to burst through the screen; he doesn’t even get at the exertion of singing. For that matter, the backing instrumentalists’ sound comes onto the soundtrack as in classic Hollywood musicals, and the effect is neither radically documentary nor radically stylized. The filming of the songs has a compulsory feel, deferentially depersonalized. Instead, most of “Annette” can be summed up in that killer word that suggests the self-abnegating subordination of direction to screenwriting and to the dictates of a franchise or a literary source: illustrative.