In a recent Q&A at the Lincoln Center about his eccentric new rock musical Annette—in which a celebrity couple played by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard become parents to a big-eared female marionette with an angelic singing voice—French director Leos Carax was asked about the unique malleability of his male lead. For the past four decades, Carax has been collaborating with his chameleonic countryman Denis Lavant, a spectacular shapeshifter who played nearly a dozen roles in 2012’s exuberant Holy Motors (including a sewer-dwelling mutant). Speaking with moderator Devika Girish of Film Comment, Carax perceived something kindred to Lavant in Driver’s highly physical acting style. “[They’re both] like monkeys,” the director said. “But I like monkeys. … When they don’t move, they look like statues; when they move, they look like dancers.”
The simian thing is key to Driver’s affect in Annette. His character, one Henry McHenry, is a kamikaze stand-up comedian whose controversial stage persona is the “Ape of God” (he even splatters a banana before going onstage). The question of how a misanthropic performance artist would sell out theaters across L.A. and dominate TMZ-style gossip shows while joking about blow jobs and gas chambers is one of several dozen mysteries that Carax’s wildly stylized film bulldozes over through sheer, delirious commitment to the bit. Working closely with the pop duo Sparks (who conceived the story and wrote the score), Carax piles on absurdist touches—secret trysts, supernatural curses, vengeful mermaids, a distinctly European version of a Super Bowl halftime show—until the whole enterprise threatens to buckle under its weight. Annette runs almost two and a half hours and feels longer; it doesn’t have Holy Motors’ fast-twitch momentum. But Driver carries this strange, ungainly allegory about art, fame, and love on his back and straight upward like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla. King Kong ain’t got shit on him.
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