For some thirty years now your Musical Patriot has marched in step with a woman named Annette to countless nights in the cinema, opera, and theater. Last Friday was not one of them.
Her given name required us to see the recently released musical, Annette, so march we did to Ithaca, New York’s independent movie house, Cinemapolis, often praised in this space.
Students returning to the town’s two institutions of higher learning, Ithaca College and Cornell University, were out-and-about and unmasked. Many of their parents had brought them and they too lingered for the weekend. These intergenerational groups shuffled past the town’s understaffed eateries mumbling to each other and into their phones about “90-minute waits” and “nowhere to get a drink.” In the new economy of the not-so-distant-future, dining out will rightly be more expensive, kitchen and wait staffs perhaps more equitably paid. If you’re willing to shell out 70K a year for your kids’ college education, why not fifty bucks for a locally-sourced bison burger?
Serpentining through the hangry masses on our way to Annette, Annette and I ducked into the alley leading to the movie house. Until a month ago Cinemapolis was shoehorned into a hideous parking garage that has now been demolished to make way for an expanded parking garage, which in turn will be topped by an eleven-story apartment building. Until new construction begins, our beloved movie bunker blinks into the glare of an expanse of concrete rubble.
Inside Cinemapolis the foyer was empty but for the cashier. We approached and asked for tickets to Annette. The cashier wryly informed us (hard to be wry behind a Covid mask, but she succeeded) that Annette had closed the night before. We wanted to know why its run had been so short. The answer: because the movie had dropped that very day on amazon.
Routed by this surprise attack from the zeitgeist, we made a forced retreat to our living room. Facing up to the terms of our defeat, we streamed the movie. If the namesake title of the film hadn’t forced us into submission, we would have fought on, guerilla-style: read a book, played some duets on the piano, watched the sunset.
An ordeal like Annette surely seems longer when endured from your own sofa with the day’s credits scrolling through wavy glass—the twilight receding over the lush late-summer green of West Hill. The film’s duration seemed to expand probably because it’s so tempting to turn the thing off. The commitment to the Big Dark is made when you buy your ticket, and the possibility to abandon ship is less pressing at every lull and lapse. In Annette there are many moments of doubt.
The best bits come during the opening and closing credits.
As the logos of the many production companies flash on the black screen, a gravelly, accented voice-over commands the viewer to devote full attention to the show: “If you want to sing, laugh, clap, cry, boo, yawn, or fart, do it in your head.” The voice forbids us breathing, too, and recommends we fill our lungs one last time before the show starts, a sometimes excruciating two-hours-plus even with occasional respiration. That disembodied voice belongs to director Leos Carax, archly conjuring not the death of the auteur but of the audience. Before the first moving images appear, we are made to know that this is a meta-film: the act of being entertained is the entertainment.
As we continue to regard the dark screen, we hear a quavering rendition, somewhere between humming and song, of a French folk tune. Words are not discernible, but English subtitles fragmentarily inform us that: “Underneath the moonlight / my good friend Pierrot”. We don’t get the rest of the text, but Google provides:
By the light of the moon,
My friend Pierrot,
Lend me your quill
To write a word.
My candle is dead,
I have no light left.
Open your door for me
For the love of God.
That moon provides light not just for scrivening and movie-making but for a whole lot of navel-gazing.
The screen still mostly dark, we at last see a night-time scene with traffic moving along a wide boulevard in front of a mid-century building. An angry and jagged audio processor signal repeatedly flashes red across the screen, EKG-like. The beast is being brought to life by the mad-scientist filmmaker.
With the first “realistic” image, the disembodied voice heard at the very opening gets a body: Carax himself seen from behind as he lights a cigarette while perched on a stool above a massive mixing board. Out in the studio visible through the glass, the musicians responsible for the score and the script—the brothers Ron and Russell Mael of the band Sparks—get ready to record. When they plug into their amps the image flickers.
The band and its machines warm up. The lumbering apparatus of musical-making begins to move itself, to find its own voice.
In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was “So.”
From inside the producer’s booth, Carax speaks into the mike. “So, may we start?” That opening syllable will plague the movie, and especially its crux song—another over-cycled one-liner: “We love each other so much.” The film’s lyric sensibility strives to make a virtue of lack of invention.
Still in the studio, the keyboardist in pressed white shirt and tie grabs a pair of chords oscillating between minor and major. Sounds like a battle between good and evil.
The Mael brothers try out the line “So, may we start,” going on to admit that although all are “underprepared,” they still “hope it goes the way it is supposed to go.” A quartet of back-up singers clad in green lingerie practice their harmonies. They will appear in the story proper as the chorus for the “evil” in the just-mentioned Manichaean duality.
The band kicks into gear: the show has started even as the singers continue to ask for permission to begin.
Spurred to action by their music, the players leave the studio, joined in step and song by the director as all head down the corridor. Their progress recorded in a virtuosic long take, as if to say there is no editing in real life. As the filmmakers exits the building, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard come down the stairway already singing “So may we start” and take their rightful place at the head of the gathering parade. The stars are still themselves, not yet their characters, their real names listed in red, credit-wise, as they appear.
We’ve just come from the studio so we know that this elaborate choreography is pre-packaged and, in knowing contradiction of the lyrics, overprepared. The postproduction effects its miracle: as they sing their way into the street, individual voices are recognizable in their grain and ever-changing position on the sidewalk. The ensemble is painstakingly imperfect in its execution so as to deceive us that we’re seeing and hearing real-time performance. The third actor (Simon Helberg) in the ensuing love triangle falls into line, his name printed in red in front of him.
The chorus echoes into the night while Driver crosses the street just as a police car pulls out, its siren bullhorn warning him “not to start.” But it’s too late. He dons his dark knight helmet and hops onto his motorcycle and speeds to his own show-within-the-show-within-the-show—a lacerating comedy performance-event in which the audience is more overprepared than any interactive Rocky Horror Picture Show.
What follows from this inspired, uplifting tour-de-force of an opening (pre-)production number is two hours of overwrought yet straightforward melodrama leadened by too many winking references to opera and film and lit—from Wagner to King Vidor. The attempts to mock the conventions of musical theater fall flat, nowhere more thuddeningly than when the leads sing during sex and or while sitting on the toilet. These gags come off as silly rather than provocative.
There is also a strangely backward deference to male artistic power, a dominance that takes place outside of the post-modern quotation marks in which the rest of the film speaks and sings. Adam Driver does most of the singing, and even when Cotillard’s opera diva is giving birth to the title character she merely giggles rather than hits piercing high notes.
After the melodrama’s final reckoning in a prison—a clever parallel space to the studio of the opening—the credits roll, white letters on a black background accompanied by ponderous instrumental meditations on the gratingly repetitive theme from “We love each other so much.”
The silence that follows is broken by bird song. The chipper voice of the young actor (Devyn McDowell) who plays Annette shouts “Action!” Carrying Chinese lanterns, the filmmakers process through some unburntover California savanna at dawn. The cast and crew speak in unison, bidding their audience “a safe journey home.”
I’ve got news for you, amazon, we’re already there.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)