They Call It Puppet Love

We enjoyed ANNETTE, with reservations.

I certainly liked it better than the last arthouse musical I can recall seeing, DANCER IN THE DARK. Though it has a slight echo of Von Trier, in its literal-mindedness. The characters sing a song to say the show is starting. They sing a song about how much they’re in love. They sing a song saying they hope we enjoyed the show. And the dialogue/lyrics often have a slightly leaden, awkward quality, as if written by someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language. But the Mael brothers, who wrote it, are American, so is it purely director Leos Carax’s influence making strange, or just the fact that they’re not experienced screenwriters? Probably the latter.

The Maels have written an opera, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and they were UCLA film students, so this isn’t all completely new to them. They also scored a Jean-Claude Van Damme action film, KNOCK-OFF. And some of the clunk has charm, particularly the intro and outro songs (stay through the end credits).

As the film got off to its slow start, I wondered if it had been really wise to make the protagonist/anti-hero (Adam Driver) a stand-up comedian. We get quite a lengthy set from him, and what I was wondering all through it was, Is this meant to be funny? It wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t — arguably the idea is to satirise edgy stand-up — the problem is the tone and intent aren’t clear. There’s a second routine, later in the story, which flops with the audience and is therefore easier to take — this is NOT meant to be funny, but it does contain some terrific stagecraft: Driver, speaking of death, lies flat on the stage, cruciform, laying his mic on his chest, and we hear his heartbeat. Stuff like that.

Anyway the first act felt LOOONG but there are some lovely visuals, mostly associated with Marion Cotillard’s character’s career as an opera singer. A scene of Driver driving and being tormented by visions from various operas kicks things up several notches. And it’s amusing how, in this film, characters sing while having sex, going to the toilet, giving birth. Then Driver’s character starts shedding all claims on our sympathy, and the plot runs through echoes of the Natalie Wood story and The Tell-Tale Heart (Carax thanks E.A. Poe in the end credits, but spells his name “Edgard” — in a way, that kind of idiosyncratic mistake is cheering in today’s era of machine-tooled cinema).

Sparks/the Maels are expressive and quirky lyricists, but not here. I’m guessing the pressure of having to create songs tied to a narrative has constrained their invention. But then why did the moments that seemed most plotty — the birth scene, and the police interrogation, for instance, give me the most musical pleasure? I think it’s because they each involve a little crowd of additional characters — so they bring in some exciting harmonies, and they don’t depend on Driver’s voice. Driver can sing, and he can sing emotionally — he really gives a dramatic performance while singing, which a lot of better singers can’t do, but his limited strength stops the music taking flight. On the other hand, he’s also a producer on the film and it’s doubtful we would have it if not for his input.

I don’t want to sound too down on the film — visually and musically, if not so much lyrically, it’s often extraordinary. And I enjoyed being back at Filmhouse. Didn’t enjoy the subtitles for the hard of hearing and couldn’t work out why they were there (are a lot of deaf people seeing this musical? If it was felt the lyrics needed help, OK I guess, but the sound effects didn’t need help).

Cotillard is strong, but the best perfs are Simon Helberg and singing sprog Devyn McDowall, a real prodigy. Of course they have the benefit of not having to carry the whole film, they breeze in like pint-sized breaths of fresh air, and in a film that’s almost entirely sung, you really need all the oxygen you can get.

See it, maybe not expecting perfection, and you should get something of value out of it.

15 Responses to “They Call It Puppet Love”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Feel similar to you.

    Annette is a movie about fatherhood and Leos Carax appears with his daughter in the opening scene. I guess part of the film is processing how a weird transgressive youthful guy like Carax becomes an old guy with a kid.

    The final scene is amazing and worth watching but on the whole it strikes me as the weakest of Carax’s features until now. Still more interesting than most anything in movies these days.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    My feelings about it are equally mixed. As always Oscar Alexandre Dupont (his real name) give you something to look at and listen too. Glad you brought up Natalie Wood as I thought of that too in the way Cottillard’s death was dramatized as a bit of offhand carelessness. Simon Helberg on the other hand meets a truly savage end for reasons that remain unclear. Driver’s character is supposed to be a comedian but he dresses and gestures like a prizefighter. And while I like Sparks work in general they can’t sustain an operatic line which is what’s called for here. Kylie Minogue worked far better in Carax’s adaptation of Melville’s “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade”

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    As for Adam Driver he doesn’t get to sing here as heso spectacularly did in “Marriage Story” — because the Mael’s aren’t Sondheim.

  4. While you were at the Filmhouse I was returning to Dundee Contemporary Arts this afternoon for the first time in over 18 months to see ANNETTE. Surely its theme is not fatherhood but male rage and violence. Ann’s fate is signposted from the very start. Henry, in a hooded robe, preparing to go on stage, shadow boxes with his reflection, a clear reference to Jake la Motta, that symbol of toxic masculinity. Even as he and Ann begin their ‘We’re So In Love ‘ duet, he is contemplating harm, approaching her from behind, hands reaching as if to grasp her by the throat. He’s the malevolent dark rider, never seen in daylight, the mark of the devil spreading across his cheek as his descent into the abyss is charted. A chorus of Me Too complainants urge Ann to beware, but in vain. (What happened to their complaints?) I found it a hard watch, while admiring Adam Driver’s courage and energy. But I agree with you that it was other performers who made the strongest impression. Simon Helberg (so good as the accompanist in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS), simultaneously conducting and telling us of Henry’s invitation to the house, provides a musically thrilling sequence and Driver’s concluding scene with Devyn MacDowall was worth the wait.

  5. That’s what I like about running this place, I get a bunch of better reviews than I could write in the comments!

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

  9. Michael Wells Says:

    “a Jean-Claude Van Damme action film, KNOCK-OFF.”

    More importantly, a Tsui Hark action film. I’m very fond of KNOCK-OFF, which is in the category of “films that I’m pretty sure aren’t good but are so fascinatingly odd I’m not sure if they might actually be good.” You can’t entirely dislike a movie where Van Damme competes in a rickshaw race while his passenger whips him with an eel grabbed from a tub in a street market, and then we get a CGI view of the inside of his cheap sneaker sole disintegrating as he runs.

    And i’m a huge Tsui fan, which obviously has a lot to do with it.

    The Sparks brothers’ closing-credits song is pretty amazing – “I must confess that this is really not my song/I bought it in Hong Kong/It’s a knock-off.” It feels like a comment on the film itself, but damned if I know what it’s saying.

  10. Well, Sparks lobbied for the job of scoring a JCVD film, so they evidently wanted to be doing that. I don’t think it’s a MAJOR Tsui film, but it’s fun. Peking Opera Blues is my favourite but there are probably about twelve just like it that I haven’t seen.

  11. Michael Wells Says:

    In my (quite extensive) experience of Hong Kong cinema, PEKING OPERA BLUES is one of a kind. Unless you count Tsui’s earlier SHANGHAI BLUES, which I guess is quite similar in style and spirit. So one of two of a kind.

    Agreed that it’s Tsui’s masterpiece, and a solid resident on my all-time Top 10.

  12. The final action sequence — I can’t think of many other examples of ludicrousness elevated to gleeful art. I seem to recall it making the audience cheer when I saw it on the big screen.

  13. Michael Wells Says:

    The whole movie makes me jump up and down in my seat. The lack of any proper home video release ever in the United States is one of my major beefs with the human race. Was there ever one in the UK? I keep hoping for a deluxe Eureka edition.

  14. I’m not aware of one. I should suggest that to MoC!

  15. Michael Wells Says:

    Yes, please!

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