A Total Work of Art

On Leos Carax's Annette (2021)

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Every era gets the Gesamtkunstwerk it deserves. In Richard Wagner’s 1849 essay, The Artwork of the Future, the German composer conceives theater as the ideal site for the reintegration of dance, tone, and poetry, which had been separated out after their original unity in Greek drama. Architecture, too, was to be incorporated into the new unified mega-art, as the art of framing the total theater staged within its edifice. And there is drama too, which already on its own, Wagner thinks, is a sort of “conjoint” totality, “since it can only be at hand in all its possible fullness, when in it each separate branch of art is at hand in it in its own utmost fullness.”

The four-part opera cycle Der Ring der Nibelungen (1869-1876) was his most complete attempt to realize such an all-embracing work, building layers of Germanic mythology —the Volk being the “force that conditions the artwork”— onto an earlier Romantic sensibility in the vein of Giacomo Meyerbeer that Wagner would infamously come to despise as all so much “Judenthum”. The völkisch element is not just in the libretto, the set design, and the costumes, but in the music itself, and of course there was a large budget at Bayreuth for fuming dragons and other such effects. Wagner was himself known to fume when his pyrotechnics malfunctioned.

I have long maintained that Jacques Demy’s film diptych of 1964 and 1967, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg followed by Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, should be seen as the Gesamtkunsterk for the twentieth century that Wagner’s Ring cycle had been for the nineteenth. Other contenders present themselves of course, some obvious —The Wizard of Oz (1939), Disney’s Fantasia (1940)—, some less so — Hermann Nitsch’s Actionist “Orgiastic Mystery Theater”, for example, which seeks to sublate the division between art and life by indulging in the dark and very real deed of unsimulated animal bloodshed. It is safe anyhow to say that the two principal genetic strands of Wagner’s ideal evolved, on the one hand, into cinema, and on the other into the various avant-garde attempts to leave off from mere representation and to passer à l’acte through ritualized transgression and violence. Today let’s stick with the brighter and more sociable of Wagner’s children.

It is not just cinema in general, but musical cinema in particular that seems best poised to claim Gesamtkunstwerk status. There are of course many non-musical films that are better than the best musicals. Some cinematic masterpieces lack even a threadbare soundtrack; Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) comes to mind, unless the sound of coins jangling is to count as a soundtrack. But for better or worse music is an essential component of any film that is going to count as a total work of art in Wagner’s sense. Demy’s work, particularly the 1964 Parapluies, along with the ingenious score by Michel Legrand, is noteworthy in that it was originally conceived for the screen, and was not an after-the-fact ecranization of a musical first performed on stage. There seems in fact to be a general rule that all good film musicals —Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Sergeï Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), notably— are born in this way, while most bad ones —Grease (1978), Cats (2019) (so I gather)— pass through their larval stage on Broadway.

Parapluies and Demoiselles are inherently cinematic. Catherine Deneuve cannot sing, but is made to look like she is singing through overdubbing, a possibility live theater cannot consider. The Nouvelle Vague-adjacent editing is as crucial for the feel of the film as the architecture of the set. Most importantly, while there is no transition into Technicolor as happens so iconically when Dorothy lands in Oz, both of Demy’s films seem to be largely about the possibilities for color in film, the way it heightens and sublimates reality —even the dull grey reality of coastal Normandy— much like music does.

As for the music, while I would never think to listen to the soundtracks separately —to do so would be to break the conjoint totality of the work—, Legrand’s melodies weave exactly like operatic leitmotifs through the whole, as elements of narrative — as “tone-speech”, which Wagner believes was first discovered in the instrumental works of Beethoven. And any compelling leitmotif is also a successful earworm, jumping out of the narrative and into the head whether you download the soundtrack separately or not (especially Madeleine’s “Je ne pourrais jamais vivre sans toi…” solo in the café in Parapluies, and the twins’ “Nous sommes les soeurs jumelles…” in Demoiselles).

“Every era gets the Gesamtkunstwerk it deserves” is the cynical thought I had watching Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) a few years ago. I saw this movie as a faint shadow of the studio musicals of the golden age, trying to pass off its dumb and obvious Easter eggs as inscription into a tradition. This is in fact how a great deal of middle-brow entertainment in the era of financialized content works. Joker (2019) for example congratulated its audiences for recognizing the allusions to Taxi Driver (1976), even though these allusions were crystal-clear, even though viewers were primed in advance to recognize them from social-media chatter, and even though they were sooner a reminder of the later film’s inferior obeisance to its predecessor than an assurance that moviemakers today are riding on the shoulders of giants. The relationship here is essentially no different from that of Puff Daddy/P. Diddy to The Police: take something at least passably good from a few decades ago, make it bad in pursuit of money, but convince your audience through publicity (i.e., through capital) that there is no signal loss, that an extended sample or remix of anything good cannot fail to share in that same original quality.

It turns out I may have been at least a little wrong about our era, or at least about one small life-force that somehow continues to survive in it. I admit the force of the judgment I am about to share regarding Leos Carax’s new film, Annette, may have something to do with the special circumstances in which I saw it. This was the first time we had been in a movie theater since before the pandemic. We had the entire lower floor to ourselves at the landmark Louxor, in the 18th arrondissement at Barbès-Rochechouart, just across from what was until recently the discount-clothing store Tati, with a big fake-looking neon sign as from a Broadway stage representation of a cityscape, where women from the Maghreb used to bend over for deep-dives into giant closeout bins along the sidewalk, evidently unaware of how much delight the establishment’s namesake Jacques would have taken in this scene.

The Louxor is one of the few remaining Egypt-themed cinemas in Paris, a trend that was borrowed from the Americans, in particular the strange simile between California and the Holy Land that inspired so much of early Hollywood’s output, that accounts for all of the Alhambras in L.A., for the planting there of non-native palm trees, and for the career of Rudolph Valentino. But this American trend in turn owes a certain debt to the French Egyptomania of the Napoleonic era, which brought to Paris the Obelisk and the fashion for hieroglyphs and mummy-unwrapping soirées. So the Louxor is a special place, and embodies a great deal of the strange trans-Atlantic spirit that made French cinephilia what it is, and that presumably in part made Leos Carax.

Carax’s most recent film depicts the love between Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) a sort of stand-up comedian, and Ann (Marion Cotillard), an opera singer. They get married, and have a child, Annette. Ann’s success makes Henry jealous, and they take a yacht trip, together with the child, in the aim of reconciling. A storm comes up, and Henry, drunk, attempts to waltz with Ann on the deck. She slips into the water, with responsibility equally divided, apparently, between him and the storm. The yacht sinks and Henry rows to an island with Annette in a lifeboat. The ghost of Ann comes and transmits her own voice into her daughter —though it can only be triggered at the sight of the night sky or an appropriate simulacrum— in order to torment Henry. When he first hears the voice, he determines to take his daughter on the road and enrich himself from her talent. He draws Ann’s former lover into this venture, whom he in turn eventually murders. Henry winds up in prison, and Annette comes to visit him, scolding him and her deceased mother for their failures, and insisting in spite of his pleas that he can “no longer love her”. She leaves in the arms of the guard, and Henry turns to look at what in any other film would be a visiting-room security camera, but in this one is you yourself, the viewer, and says: “Stop looking at me”.

The viewer feels bad now, but not in the way of Michael Haneke’s disgraceful Funny Games (1997, remade in 2007 in, uh, Hollywood, when the “critique” of Hollywood exploitativeness in the original Austrian version went unnoticed in Hollywood), where the director’s chastisement of the audience for its prurient gawking only has authority to the extent that Haneke succeeds in convincing us that he’s “not like those other directors”, and is only showing you gore and terror in order to derive a “higher” lesson. Carax’s film is seriously concerned with morality, but is not moralizing in this way. When Henry tells you to stop looking at him, it’s because his pain is real pain and it’s shameful to show it. It’s shameful to watch too, of course, but it’s also shameful to look away. You get entwined with other human beings, and you are bound to feel shame soon enough.

If I have “given away the plot” here, this is only because it is not —whatever the summary on an Air France in-seat screen will be telling you soon enough— what really matters. Rather more essential to understanding what Annette is about is the fact that Annette, for the greater part of the film, is some kind of animatronic marionette. And even for a puppet she’s strange: when Ann tucks her in that fateful night on the yacht, Annette’s hand (balsa wood? silicone?) begins to point toward the ceiling, before her mother knowingly folds it back down. At one point Henry accidentally sits on Annette as she slips between the couch cushions, and she makes no noise. Or perhaps he only hallucinates that he’s sat on her, the camera jolting to perfectly capture the feeling of brief terror at the thought that you have perhaps just killed an infant. Annette is born with a clown nose and clown make-up, which goes away soon enough, while her elf ears do not. Perhaps the most ingenious “sample” in the film —which Carax uses not to derive unearned cachet, but to heighten the uncanny confusion to a nearly unbearable level— comes when Annette first learns to walk, at an unnaturally early age, and falls on what in context can only be called her “bottom” (a word I only use in very special situations, like “tummy” or “gooey”), as high-kitsch light-symphonic music of the sort you might hear in the early scenes of Bambi (1942) helps describe her fall.

Henry’s final line closes out a narrative frame that had opened with a violation of the fourth wall, as gleeful as the end is somber, in which Carax himself is sitting behind the panel in a recording studio and declares, “So may we start?” At this cue the sibling duo of Ron and Russell Mael, together making up the legendary ‘70s art-pop band Sparks, who also wrote and performed the film’s soundtack, begin singing the opening number, also called “So May We Start”. In the song the film is spoken of as a concrete object, of which the song is itself evidently not a part; various technical parameters are acknowledged, the most amusing one being that “the budget is big but it’s not enough”. There’s also some allusion to the possibility that someone will be killed, and since we’re still “outside” the film and this possibility is listed along side other technical, “factual” parameters and budgetary constraints, the insinuation is that this will not be a representation of killing, but rather a real murder. Again, Carax does not want to make you feel bad for your weak complicity, like Haneke, or like Rémy Belvaux et al. in the Belgian faux-documentary gore-fest Man Bites Dog (1992), so much as to insist on the untenability of the boundary between spectatorship and participation —which is just another way of saying “art” and “reality”—, and on the reign of morality across both sides of this divide.

The cast and crew who join to sing “So May We Start” disperse into the streets of what is supposedly Santa Monica and the filmic reality takes hold. What follows is a long examination of the architecture and nature of the so-called fourth wall, notably through the mirrored worlds of stand-up comedy and opera. Henry’s comedian is plainly a composite of Howard Stern, Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock (whom Driver thanks in the credits), amplified to unreal “bad boy” levels (Carax wanted Driver for the role in view of his robust simian physiognomy; Henry McHenry is billed on marquees —a nod to Wyndam Lewis— as “the Ape of God”, and this association is made even more explicit at one point when he is portrayed, holding baby Annette, in a gorilla costume). Perhaps the most powerful moment of fourth-wall hammering comes when Henry is on stage, and begins to tell the story, which may or may not be true, of having tickled his wife to death that morning. The Greek chorus of fans yells at him that this isn’t funny, that they’ve had enough, but he continues, role-playing the scene from their bedroom, now as her, now as himself. The scene is something like the early moments of Louis Malle’s remarkable Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), when Wally Shawn and his fellow troupe members move fluidly from buying knishes out on the sidewalk to enacting, inside the theater, in streetclothes, a completely riveting performance of Chekhov. Once Henry has died on stage, as his wife, he sits up and relates that that morning, after the murder, he tried to commit suicide, also by tickling, and demonstrates, slumped and frustrated, how ineffective it is to apply your own fingers to your own armpits.

I take it that it’s fairly easy to get up to speed on current trends in stand-up, yet I was surprised to learn that Carax had no particular knowledge of or concern for opera prior to working on Annette, as the film seems to me almost centrally a reflection on the aesthetics of that art form. The most stunning moment in Ann’s fourth-wall explorations comes when she walks deeper into the stage on which she is performing an aria, and the forest-themed set transforms into a forest, with sublimely shot spider-webs and deer. As Wagner understood (one may also mention Robert Wilson here), if art is going to get close to sublating the art/reality divide, that art will take place in a theater, and set-design will be among the elements that pushes it past that limit.

Henry jokes with Ann early on about the eternal recurrence of her “death” on stage, which for an opera singer is par for the course, while for a comedian stage-death is career-death, and by contrast it is the audience (the chorus) that the comedian sets out to “kill”. The high artifice with which a soprano’s character dies at the end of a typical climactic aria illuminates in turn a crucial dimension of the film’s own aesthetic aims. Know-nothing online commenters have already begun remarking that the songs in Annette are “banal”: the texts are simple, straightforward, with lyrical leitmotifs like “She’s out of this world,” and “We love each other so much”. It should be obvious however that the banality —which is really just a way of saying “universality”— is the whole point.

As in opera, the art lies in the transfiguration, through musical and gestural heightening, of familiar, everyday sentiments regimented by stereotypes. This is what art —a word that provides us with other such lexical gems as artifice and artificial— has typically always done, and it is a relatively deviant and certainly middle-brow expectation that art instead do something like what “New TV” supposedly does by feeding us the raw “realness” of quick-witted idiosyncratic repartee. It might be banal to declare “we love each other so much,” but when Adam Driver comes up briefly from a session of oral sex (giving not getting) to deliver that declaration in song, this strikes me as one of the funniest and most joltingly transfigured images I’ve seen on film in a very long time.

It is indeed at the level of stereotypes that musicals, or any art approaching “totality”, unfolds. For Wagner the stereotypes are völkisch mythological archetypes, for us they’re mostly romantic. If you have a problem with these, it is probably because you have bought the line from the content-deliverers that what they are delivering to you is “reality”, and that this is itself an aesthetic virtue. As far as I can tell, anyhow, Breaking Bad looks no more like reality, as I have lived it so far, than, say, Madame Butterfly.

Already in Holy Motors (2012), Carax had perfected the use of stereotypes as raw material. Riding a motorcycle through the desert at night, passing through neon-lit tunnels: these are representations of the “cool” so obvious that even someone as conventional as, say, Johnny Hallyday, managed to understand and embody them. The great failure of musical film, and indeed of nearly everything that has happened on Broadway, is that it takes these feelings —“coolness” sometimes, as in the efforts of Andrew Lloyd Weber, but usually something more basic to human experience like glee— as the nec-plus-ultra of artistic creation. There is great glee in schlock too, and no scene in Annette uses the raw material of schlock more effectively than the climactic “final performance” at the “Hyper-Bowl”, some giant stadium filled as at Superbowl half-time, again at night, with rows of fake football players “taking the knee” for some reason no one can likely recall, the unseen masses in the stands holding their phones up as lights and as cameras, as if in wait of the second coming of JonBenet.

There was a time when animation appeared poised to furnish the Gesamtkunstwerke of the twentieth century. Writing from exile in Kazakhstan in 1941, hoping to get back on Stalin’s good side with a flattering musical depiction of his predecessor and inspiration Ivan the Terrible, Sergeï Eisenstein notes of Walt Disney: “I’m sometimes frightened when I watch his films. Frightened because of some absolute perfection in what he does.” Eisenstein calls the iconic Skeleton Dance cartoon (1929) “unsurpassed”. I would myself consider Steamboat Willie (1928) one of the ten greatest works of twentieth-century art (if someone were to put a gun to my head and force me to make a list). At its origin the great discovery of animation was that, suddenly, absolutely everything was possible: playing a cow’s teeth as if they were piano keys, cranking its tail in order to get “Farmer in the Dell” out of its mouth, humanizing some animal species but not others. What set in soon enough, however, as Disney senesced and died and the theme parks and commodifications multiplied, was a valuation of feeling over imagination, and, for the sake of maximum profit, the most accessible feeling of all was valued above all the others: the funny-but-familiar, embodied by the streamlined, infantilized, anthropomorphic mouse.

We have trouble knowing what to do with a work in an art-form that is supposed, by convention, to be infantilizing in this way. The decision to make Annette into a sort of cartoon character, apart from the obvious Pinocchio-like moral tale of eventually becoming human, also seems motivated by an awareness that animation is part of the genetic heritage of any post-twentieth-century Gesamtkunstwerk. The further decision to make this character treacly and annoying, a late-Disney-like creation on the model of Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989) is somewhat harder to explain, but evidently derives from Carax’s awareness that kitsch can be used as raw material just as productively as cool can be. The resulting product is something that is bound to be widely hated. It is indeed repulsive in many ways, if you take the feeling the characters and images generate as the end of the work. “That was the weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever seen,” said an older American woman with bright-colored eyeglass frames, who had been sitting alone on the balcony-level at the Louxor and who now really needed to share her experience of the film as we were waiting for the metro homeward at Barbès. “But it was also beautiful in a way,” my partner replied. “Beautiful?” the woman muttered, and just sort of wandered off. (Annette was not the weirdest thing I have ever seen, though it was among the better weird things I have seen.)

In Paris people carry on a lot about “le cinéma”. Most of the time I want to tell them: Please, it’s not 1960 anymore. No one cares what François Truffaut said about Hitchcock in the Cahiers. The world has moved on. The problem is that just as Disney degenerates from genius into kitsch within a few generations, blind loyalty to an art-form degenerates from “passion” to mere fandom. A few years ago I was invited to give a talk as part of Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s morally reprehensible DAU project. There in the center of the city, on a rooftop drinking vodka, I met a group of cinema-studies professors from Paris 8 or somewhere like that, fifty-year-olds dressed up in totalitarian jumpsuits as if this were some high-brow cinephile equivalent of Comic-Con. I felt guilty at having accepted the invitation, but my ticket had already been punched so I hammed it up like a public intellectual on auto-pilot.

DAU had wanted to be a Gesamtkunstwerk, but it came out as something more like a Jackass-Stalinist livestream. And its supporters came out looking exactly like what Haneke unsuccessfully tried to convince his own admirers they were: gawking immoral perverts delighting in the suffering of others. Carax has said that he hesitated to make Annette because it negated the ideal of fatherhood to which he himself was trying to live up. Such a thing would never cross the mind of either the DAU guy or the people or the algorithms that generate the installments in the Marvel Comics Universe. Somehow, against all the prevailing forces of our era, Carax has kept alive the moral light at the heart of the artistic form, and has ensured that at least for now we may continue to talk about “cinema” in a vein other than nostalgia.