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Annette Stars A Shirtless, Singing Adam Driver, But What Does It Mean?

The French filmmaker Leos Carax is the definition of all-in. His movies, which he’s been making since the 1980s, are careening vehicles for big, audacious performances, surreal visual spectacle, and sometimes jarring leaps of imagination. They’re also, almost always, engaged with the social issues of their time. In 1986, Mauvais Sang, a sci-fi parable starring Juliette Binoche, overtly referenced the AIDS crisis. 1991’s Les Amants du Pont Neuf paired Binoche with the one-of-a-kind French actor, mime, and acrobat Denis Lavant in an over-the-top melodrama about addiction, homelessness, and mutually destructive amour fou. And 2012’s Holy Motors—well, I’m not exactly sure what that one was about, but it followed Lavant’s enigmatic character through a single day of dizzying transformations, from hit man to motion-capture stunt performer to the father of a family of chimpanzees, and it was one of the best films of that year, a perceptual roller coaster that left the viewer’s brain abuzz with thrilling if hard-to-sort-out ideas about the ravages of capitalism and the instability of personal identity.

Nine years later we have Annette, a thoroughly banana cakes musical romance with story and songs by Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who make up the veteran music duo Sparks (recently and delightfully showcased in a documentary by Edgar Wright). In the place of his longtime muse Lavant, Carax has cast an equally if very differently charismatic actor, this time a global movie star: Adam Driver, the hunky cad of Girls, the glowering space brat of the latest Star Wars trilogy, the volatile wall-punching ex-husband of Marriage Story. And in the place of the serenely luminous Binoche is the serenely luminous Marion Cotillard as Ann Desfranoux, a world-famous opera singer who holds audiences in thrall with ethereal vocal performances that inevitably end in her character’s onstage death.

Ann’s lover and eventually husband, played by Driver, is a superstar standup comedian named Henry McHenry, a shock-jock type who comes onstage in a ratty bathrobe and aggressively mocks his audience’s expectation that he make them laugh. In a none-too-subtle commentary on celebrity culture and the abjection of fandom, this approach makes them laugh uproariously. And in a variation I’ve never seen on the often-revisited genre of the fourth-wall-breaking musical, Henry’s audience occasionally bursts into song themselves, chiding the bad-boy comic for his unorthodox antics on and off the stage. When they’re performing, Henry kills and Ann dies, a metaphor that is again hammered home with a little too much force.

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