Have you noticed how weird the movies are this summer?
I don’t mean the moviegoing experience, though if you’ve been inside a theater you know it’s unusual; I mean the movies themselves.
In Pig, for instance, Nicolas Cage plays a truffle hunter who goes after his stolen pig in what many expected would be a revenge thriller, but it turns out to be a quiet meditation on memory, loss, and ... fine dining in Portland? The Green Knight has been surprisingly successful despite releasing only in theaters during a pandemic — and despite being deeply, almost off-puttingly strange. Old, a peculiar family drama set on a beach that makes you old, has sold enough tickets to triple its $18 million budget. Even the standard big-budget blockbusters — F9, Black Widow, Jungle Cruise, Free Guy — have had an air of oddness about them, with flying space cars and discussions of ovaries and CGI depictions of the food chain and video game characters gone rogue.
As the summer careens to a close, cinema’s freaky vibes are palpable. And the freakiest of them all might be emanating from Annette, Leos Carax’s new musical about ... uh. Well. It’s about a doomed romance, but it’s also about a lot of other stuff: art, opera, death, stand-up comedy, the danger of taking a small craft on the high seas, the many things a puppet can do surprisingly well, fatherhood, and the whole concept of watching a movie in a theater.
Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, both bona fide movie stars, sing and wail and have some sex (sometimes all at the same time) in this aggressively non-accessible movie — which, depending on how you feel about that, is either a blast or a nightmare. It begins with the cast and filmmakers singing to the audience about how we’re about to start watching a movie. At the end, they sing to us about how the movie has ended and they hope you enjoyed it, and please tell your friends.
Driver plays Henry McHenry, a wildly popular and wildly confrontational stand-up comedian who bills himself “the ape of God” and openly mocks his audience from the stage. He has fallen in love with the waifish, wondrous opera singer Ann Defrasnoux, whose gut-wrenching performances draw staggering crowds. (In the world of Annette, opera singers are as beloved and tabloid-worthy as rockstars.)
The pair live in Los Angeles, and they are madly in love, and they sing about it a lot in a recurring number entitled “We Love Each Other So Much.” Annette’s songs — penned by Ron and Russell Mael, a.k.a. the pop duo Sparks — are mostly very literal, with characters often describing what they are doing or what they are about to do or what they think they might do.
Annette’s entire vibe is much more opera than musical; honestly, it might be best to go into the film with that expectation. (Much of the music is more recitative than pop ballad.) Do you love the bluster, pretension, and glorious goofiness of opera? The improbable stories and over-the-top madness? The songs that often repeat themselves, over and over, morphing into different keys as the mood of the story changes from delirious romance to devastating tragedy? The moments when key characters inform the audience of what’s going on by singing directly to them? The morally shaky but oddly compelling protagonists? If you don’t care for any of that, Annette will most likely be baffling. If you do, Annette is for you.
Henry and Ann’s romance leads them on a tragic journey, made more tragic by the presence of Ann’s lovelorn accompanist (played, perhaps improbably, by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg). Henry and Ann have a baby, named Annette, portrayed in the film by a puppet. She can sing. One scene is set at the Super Bowl. It’s a strange film.
Annette was the opening night film at the Cannes Film Festival in July, where it fit right in with the festival’s often bellicose offerings. After a modest two-week stopover in theaters, it’s now hitting Amazon Prime. So a lot of people have access to it, and it’s easy to imagine the confused reaction of audiences who hit play on the film because they’re excited to watch Kylo Ren sing.
For some, that unexpected turn may lead to disappointment — or it may lead to the kind of frustration that some Nic Cage fans may have felt upon seeing Pig or that some Dev Patel fans may have felt upon seeing The Green Knight. Whatever your expectations are, Annette and other summer offerings are something else.
In our risk-averse movie industry — heavily reliant on franchise fare, sequels, reboots, and Netflix “originals” that feel very much like some other movie you saw not that long ago — this streak of oddball storytelling, this trend toward breaking convention, is refreshing. The truth is that the American film business hums along mainly by not rocking the boat, by not upsetting audiences, by trying to fulfill expectations but rarely challenge them. At best, that’s how you give people something that’s comforting and fun. More darkly, it’s how you rake in advance ticket sales and drum up free advertising, also known as fan buzz, and ensure your continued survival. Today, it’s often perilous to release a movie that people might find uncomfortable.
The truth remains that we live in the world the culture industry created, where selling an entertainment product — that is “content” — is the priority, and taking a chance is rare. But a silver lining to this strange summer, in which some of the biggest films flopped or failed to generate buzz, has been the opportunity to have robust conversations about films that don’t pander to their audience.
My own mental measuring stick for a film’s greatness is the response it provokes. If audiences leave the theater (or turn off the TV) with an array of strong reactions — some love it, some despise it, some think it has merit but will vigorously argue over their reservations — then the movie they just watched was worth the investment of time and talent. It’s doing what art should do. If a film receives a “pretty good!” reaction across the board, I’m much less interested.
Sure, the latter variety will wind up with a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than the former. Yet the one that makes me argue with friends and resists attempts to cram it into a box is the movie I want to watch. That this summer has served up more of those kinds of films than usual — Annette being only the latest example — is probably a fluke. It’s also a gift; for those of us who take movies seriously, it’s what we hope for all year.
Annette opened in theaters on August 6. It begins streaming on Amazon Prime on August 20.