If Cannes is, as its organizers claim, the greatest film festival in the world, it’s probably because the French film industry dutifully treats it as such. In fact, it’s impossible to distinguish the French film industry from the Cannes sensibility—just observe how the relationship is simultaneously honored and skewered throughout the French Netflix comedy Call My Agent. Consequently, you can get a good idea of the business’s self-importance by observing which French films qualify for prime exhibition. Last year’s partial return to normalcy, i.e., in-person audiences, was marked with an opening film by a director, Leos Carax, who puts out only one film a decade, an output that automatically attracts attention, especially given Carax’s reputation as being a creator of sui generis, confounding works. As it happened, he walked away with the director’s prize, even though the movie itself mostly perplexed people who were, by dint of where it was being shown, pre-disposed to appreciate it, if not necessarily like it.
The fact that Annette is Carax’s first movie in English is less momentous than that it is a musical whose book and songs were written by the American brothers Russell and Ron Mael, better known as the rock band Sparks, who have been around screwing with people’s predilections since the early 1970s. Annette is a meta-film in that the music is often used as a comment on itself and the audience is constantly reminded that everyone on screen knows they’re out there. Genre-wise, it’s a romantic tragedy focusing on the marriage of two people who have similar vocations but are otherwise completely wrong for each other. Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) is a confrontational stand-up comedian, though technically he’s more of a monologuist with a chip on his shoulder: he struts the stage in his underwear and a hooded, open bathrobe as if looking for someone to box, insulting his audience or, at least, the idea of an audience that would deign pay money to see him. Naturally, he is a success, at least for a while. His better half is an opera singer, Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), who sees her artistic mission as “saving” her listeners. Together, they have a child, the titular girl, who mocks her parents, especially her father, by simply existing. How could two people so obviously unsuited to connubial cohabitation produce and raise an offspring, which is probably why Annette is depicted as a literal puppet.
The above precis, however, is misleading in that the story as envisioned by the Maels and realized by Carax rarely follows anything like a line of development, and most of what’s afffecting about the film is invested in stylized tableaux and production numbers. In that sense the songs work exceptionally well because we can enjoy them as songs rather than as devices to advance the plot or feed into a theme. As the setting is Los Angeles, the Maels’ home town, and not Paris, this feeling of displacement is acute. It’s definitely a Carax film, and he seems to have no proper affinity for the city. It could be taking place anywhere and, thus, nowhere. So as the tragedy takes hold it fails to make an impression, and the only thing that lingers in the memory is Henry’s forceful personality, which is alternately terrifying and endearing. Annette is a hodgepodge of fascinating ideas that don’t add up to anything coherent. I wish I wanted to see it again, but I don’t.
Equally frustrating is the movie that won the Palme D’or at Cannes, Titane. Purposely provocative whereas Annette was pointlessly challenging, the movie was written and directed by Julia Ducournau, whose previous feature, Raw, was a slyly comic take on the vampire genre set in an impossibly competitive veterinary college. Though Titane doesn’t lack for humor, its shocks are all there on the surface, exerting much less power over the viewer’s imagination than Raw did.
Certainly, the plot is just plain pulp nonsense. Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), who has a metal plate in her head due to a horrible car accident she survived as a child, is a model-dancer in an automobile showroom who likes to get it on, literally, with the merchandise after hours. Ducournau doesn’t bother explaining the biology or, for that matter, the mechanics behind this interaction, but in any case Alexia’s sexual penchant for chrome results in her becoming pregnant with…something. In any case, the nature of her work, which is creating sexual tensions between potential customers and the motorized wares she pleasures, often stimulates those customers in more conventional ways, and one evening she murders a man who stalks her after she leaves work. As in Raw, once this kind of blood lust is activated it becomes uncontrollable, and Alexia embarks on an indiscriminate killing spree that’s as bloody as it is impossible to fathom. Sought by the police, she goes through an equally repulsive physical self-transformation and tries to pass herself off as a young man who has been missing for a number of years in order to reinvent herself. Ridiculously, Vincent (Vincent Lindon), the father of this boy, believes the impersonation and takes Alexia under his wing as his own flesh and blood and whatever. At that point, the story enters the realm of family melodrama, and, thanks almost entirely to Lindon’s performance, often works by the standards of family melodrama. By the time Alexia is about to deliver her baby, Vincent is there for her, and the child.
The entire appeal of Titane is its hallucinogenic persistence. Ducournau just keeps throwing weird ideas at the screen, hoping that some of them will stick, but as with Annette, what remains in the mind is isolated grotesqueries: Alexia leaking motor oil from various orifices, her brain peaking out from an opening above her ear, Vincent’s obsessive injections of steroids, which create their own kind of mechanized physique. The violence, though exceedingly gory, is so stylized as to be unreal, except for the scene where Alexia transforms her face by propelling the irresistible force of her nose toward the immovable object of a rest room sink. In moments like that, body horror doesn’t get any more tactile.
Annette opens April 1 in Tokyo at Shibuya Euro Space (03-3461-0211), Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011).
Annette home page in Japanese
Annette photo (c) 2020CG Cinema Internationale/Theo Films/Tribus P Films International/Arte France Cinema/UGC Images/Detailfilm/Eurospace/Scope Pictures/Wrong Men/RTBF/Piano
Titane, in French, opens April 1 in Tokyo at Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).
Titane home page in Japanese
Titane photo (c) Kazak Productions-Frakas Productions-Arte France Cinema-VOO 2020