Arts Review

Two Cinematic Takes on Masculinity

“I’m a storyteller” is a common self-description for virtually everyone in the film industry these days, from directors and scenarists to publicists and marketers. The phrase is a quintessential humble-brag. It carries a sense of modesty: “I may have a profoundly intricate knowledge of my craft, but at heart I’m no different from the people spinning a good yarn for their kids.” But it also holds a whiff of epic continuity, placing the speaker in a line that reaches back to Homer, and beyond that to the nameless bards who first narrativized our species into civilization. All to say: the phrase has passed through ubiquity to become an increasingly mocked cliché. Which is why it was so refreshing to hear the French director Leos Carax say in a recent interview with the New York Times, “I’m not a storyteller.” He’s right. He’s a poet, a provocateur, an artist—but anyone attending a Carax movie expecting narrative coherence, character logic, or shapely story arcs will be sadly disappointed. “I try to compose emotional scores, like movements that flow into minor and major keys,” Carax continued. And indeed his films, including his latest, Annette, have more in common with modern music than they do with theater or literature.

Annette, which opened the Cannes Film Festival this year and won Carax that event’s Best Director award, is only the sixth full-length film in the filmmaker’s four-decade career. His breakout work, The Lovers on the Bridge, set a tone that has remained characteristic: hyper-emotional yet cerebral, surreal yet grounded in contemporary sociopolitical reality, operatically colorful and exuberant yet carefully distanced. Carax is obsessed with frames, masks, artifice—the trappings of self-aware, non-realistic art. Yet he also uses those tools to delve deep into psychological terrain: the essential multiplicity of the individual psyche, the veneers we all assume as we shift personas based on our surroundings. Like his kindred spirit, theatrical director Ivo van Hove, Carax is that unusual being: a Brechtian-Freudian. He constantly pulls you out of his stories with disruptive, alienating Verfremdungseffekt devices and narrative incongruities. Yet he also wants you (pace Brecht) to identify deeply with his characters, to see yourself in their messy, contradictory, outrageous intensity.

Carax’s most recent film before Annette, 2012’s Holy Motors, is now often cited as one of the four or five best films of the last decade, and it is gloriously strange, knottily complex, and wildly entertaining. His spare output seems to be as much a function of financing challenges as of Kubrickian reclusion. In interviews, he comes off as self-effacing and surprised that anyone would fund or even like his work, which he acknowledges is not standard fare. When he announced that Annette would be a musical, as well as his first film in English, eyebrows were raised. Was Carax going commercial? His casting of prominent (if always adventurous) actors Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in the leading roles prompted further curiosity. In the end, Carax fans need not have worried. Annette could not have been directed by anyone else.

The film grew out of an idea developed by Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who comprise the alternative rock duo Sparks. Their initial impetus was a concept album about a volatile artistic couple and their unusually gifted child. Carax took this idea, and the score written by the Maels, and created an homage to classic Hollywood, viewed through a French avant-garde lens. The film opens with a fourth wall-breaking sequence in a recording studio where we see Carax himself, his daughter, and the Mael brothers testing equipment and then recording the movie’s opening song, “So May We Start.” Once the number is underway, Carax films it in a virtuoso uninterrupted five-minute shot, following the brothers as they leave the recording studio, joined one by one by the film’s cast. As the group walks down a Los Angeles street, the two leading actors slowly get into character, putting on bits of costume and peeling off to enter the film’s diegesis. The song is delightful—boppy and playful and funky, with a hilarious kicker at the end when, after dozens of sung repetitions of the title, the camera pans past a police car cautioning another vehicle: “Don’t try to start!”

From here, the movie seems to enter A Star Is Born territory, the favorite model for modern musical films (c.f. the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga remake, not to mention La La Land). Driver plays Henry McHenry, a performance artist who does profane, narcissistic, excruciatingly self-revealing stand-up routines for massive audiences. We see long segments of his newest act, entitled “The Ape of God,” in which he walks around in a half-open bathrobe, confessing his most venial sins in rhyming dialogue, abetted by a backup group of four girl singers. The adoring audience sings back questions and reactions, all in complex rhythmic interplay. Henry is confrontational, angry, and dead set on making his audience uncomfortable. He’s also big time, a zeitgeist phenomenon. Cotillard plays Ann Defrasnoux, an opera star. She’s also big—enough so to have her name and face blown up and projected onto Los Angeles’ iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall. They are in love, as evidenced by their first duet, a deceptively banal song called “We Love Each Other So Much.” But there’s trouble in paradise from the get-go. It’s clear that his art is destructive, whereas hers is nurturing. “How did your show go?” she asks when they rendezvous late one evening. “I killed them,” he says. “And yours?” “I saved them,” she replies.

In Carax’s strange world, the love of an edgy performance artist and an opera singer is prime tabloid fare, and many of the early scenes are punctuated by Entertainment Tonight-style TV segments. It’s clear that his star is waning whereas hers is on the ascendant. What we see of her art doesn’t look or sound like anything one would see on a major operatic stage although, having said that, I acknowledge that all bets are off when it comes to modern opera staging and composition. She is, perhaps, a new-age diva like the great Julia Bullock who, tellingly, has a cameo role in the film. In any case, Annette is not particularly interested in either protagonist’s artistry. It is, instead, primarily a dissection of masculine rage. Henry’s fortunes plummet when six women come forward to accuse him of harassment. His relationship with Ann, which began with musicalized explicit sex scenes, becomes increasingly disturbing, with frightening premonitions (his hands reach toward her neck as they walk down an idyllic country road) and a sense that life will mirror art (“I’m dying, dying, dying!” she sings in one of her perfor­mances, and a montage shows her enacting famous operatic death scenes from Otello, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, and La Traviata). As Henry’s career collapses, as his act turns from provocative to hostile, as his audiences desert him, we find ourselves entering noir territory. Violent tragedy ensues.

We haven’t met Annette herself, yet. She’s Henry and Ann’s beloved daughter, born amidst a delicious musical number set in the hospital, supported by singing nurses and a rhythmically beeping vital signs monitor. She is also, for almost the entire movie, played by a puppet. At first, I was put in mind of the Bunraku-inspired child puppet in the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Madama Butterfly—a canny solution to the inevitable awkwardness of toddler performers on stage. And indeed, much like the Butterfly puppet, little Annette is extraordinarily expressive and gentle. She bonds with Ann with emotional intensity. Annette also ultimately becomes a worldwide phenomenon as a child singer, enchanting hundreds of millions with her wispy, angelic voice and her ability to fly—until the day that she refuses to perform at an arena concert and triggers a catastrophic denouement.

At this point, readers who have not seen the film are probably saying, “Wait—what?!” Yes, the movie, already strange, enters yet new realms of strangeness in its final third. The plot segues from A Star Is Born to Wozzeck and then, in its final moments, to Pinocchio. And yet in some ways, Annette is actually more orthodox than Carax’s previous films; it is certainly more linear. The trappings are experimental, but the story, to its detriment at times, can feel rather conventional. Carax is critiquing toxic masculinity, but he’s also asking us to watch a lot of it. Driver’s Henry is unquestionably the central character in the film, and this focus on the violent central male character is where the movie is most derivative and least interesting. Male abasement and self-pity are rather a bore these days, and the movie only partially overcomes this problem thanks to Driver’s powerful performance. His craggy physicality, his uncanny way of using his body, has rarely been put to better use. Ann, on the other hand, is seriously under-characterized. Cotillard is, as always, robustly present and full of rich physical and vocal emotion (although her voice in the opera scenes is, understandably, dubbed by Catherine Trottmann). But Ann feels short-changed in the film—and it’s hard to tell if that’s a failing, or if it’s Carax’s entire point. It can’t be coincidental that Cotillard’s name is somewhat obscured in the opening credits, as if we’re meant to see her and her character only indistinctly.

The score by Sparks sounds like The Who’s Tommy at times, then like Andrew Lloyd Webber, and then Philip Glass. Some musical moments are repetitive, but there’s a refreshing variety and a canny matching of character and style, from Henry’s grating rock riffs to the symphonic sound associated with the character played by the wonderful Simon Helberg (named only as The Conductor) who may have had an affair with Ann. Annette is certainly aware of its antecedents, and it utilizes musical genre conventions with mindfulness. The central portrait of a hostile man annihilating a supportive woman recalls Martin Scorsese’s dark musical New York, New York and, even further back, the James Cagney/Doris Day Love Me or Leave Me. But in the end, Annette doesn’t really feel like any other film musical. It is its own, unique thing. Carax may be an eccentric lunatic at times, but no one else makes movies like this today, and that’s got to be worth something. His visual sense is invariably extraordinary—and thrillingly confident. Not a frame in the entire film is less than compelling.
Male angst and its repercussions are also central to David Lowery’s new film The Green Knight, which is a filmic version of the classic medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Anonymously authored, the alliterative Middle English romance dates from the fourteenth century and relates one of the many stories to come out of the King Arthur legendarium. In Camelot, on New Year’s Eve, a mysterious Green Knight appears and challenges any member of the Round Table to cut off his head and then to accept a return swipe a year later. The callow Gawain, Arthur’s sort-of-nephew (it’s complicated), answers the call and strikes. The decapitated Green Knight picks up his severed head and departs, and Gawain spends the next year in agonized preparation for the return blow. After multiple adventures, including a series of seductions involving a mysterious Lord and Lady, he journeys into the north and discovers the secret of the Green Knight, learning in the process the meanings of honor and humility. The poem is a staple of English Lit courses and has been adapted by everyone from J. R. R. Tolkien, in a 1925 scholarly edition, to composer Harrison Birtwistle, in a much-praised 1991 opera. The poem has been interpreted as an allegory of the introduction of Christianity to pagan Britain, as a symbol-laden portrait of late Plantagenet England and as a proto-Feminist, proto-Queer explosion of medieval sexual conventions.

Lowery has an eclectic resumé, encompassing the Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon, and the Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara-starring indie vehicles Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story (the latter one of the more underrated films of recent years). Here he goes all in on the medieval trappings, with authentic sets and costumes re-creating whatever Arthurian England was supposed to be—authenticity being a dicey concept when it comes to legendary stories that developed over the course of several centuries. The period feel is secondary, however, to Lowery’s interest in the story as a metaphor for man’s violent, terrifying, yet holistic journey toward his animalistic core (à la Joseph Conrad), and as a vehicle for a series of poetic, dreamlike images. The result feels like Apocalypse Now if it had been directed by Terrence Malick. Knights hack away at each other and face the horrors of a society upheld by brutal force—but also, foxes talk, and gentle ghosts wander the forests. In one indicative moment, we see Gawain tied to a tree, followed by a full circular pan to his skeleton tied to the same tree and then a pan back to his living body, as if we were witnessing an alternative future and then a salutary recuperation all within one uninterrupted shot. Spicing up this aesthetic approach is a sly sense of humor: another undeniable influence is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Oh—and also Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s epically grim medieval masterpiece, Andrei Rublev. It’s a hard film to pin down.

Lowery doesn’t disrupt the visuals with modern intrusions, but he does engage in modern casting, specifically the British actor of South Asian descent Dev Patel as Gawain. Patel, who shot to fame with the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, slips into the film without friction, embodying a physical ideal and erasing any sense of incongruity. He is matched in agility and charisma by Alicia Vikander (an Oscar winner for The Danish Girl) in a dual role as his lower-class girlfriend Essel and as the mysterious Lady who delays his assignation with the Green Knight. Lowery’s strong cast is completed by Joel Edgerton as the equally mysterious Lord who seems to welcome his own cuckoldry, Sean Harris as King Arthur, Kate Dickie as a sharp Guinevere, and Ralph Ineson as a very tree-ish Green Knight (one is put in mind of Tolkien’s Ents). Gawain’s mother is played by the wonderful actress Sarita Choudhury, and here the film engages in a bit of revisionism, conflating her role with that of the poem’s Morgan le Fay.

Throughout the film, Lowery, like Carax although with very different results, utilizes distanciation effects such as written chapter titles and shadow puppet shows to signal the passage of time. His characters engage in complex conversations over the meaning of the story’s elements: for example, why the Green Knight is “green” and what that color signifies. Or what the number “five” means, as manifested in Guinevere’s speech about the five virtues, as well as the pentangle symbol that recurs throughout the film. In this way, the film contains its own exegeses. Lowery also interpolates additional bits of symbolism, such as the pack of migrating giants that Gawain encounters, an indicator of the retreat of paganism, powerless against the moral certainties of pre-Reformation Christianity.

The final section of the film borrows a tactic from The Last Temptation of Christ. Gawain must decide whether to keep his promise and put his head at the mercy of the Green Knight or to run away. We see an entire alternative history, based on the latter choice, played out on screen in a lengthy montage: Gawain returns to Camelot, becomes King when Arthur dies, bears a son, leaves his wife, fights a losing war, and ultimately loses his head. We then suddenly blink back to the moment of Gawain’s decision and, this time, he makes the right choice. The film ends with his triumph over the Green Knight and the purported triumph of reason and honor over masculine rage—a short-lived victory in the Arthurian timeline but a resonant one. Lowery’s revisionist take on this tale is nowhere near as out there as Carax’s modern-day fable, but it shares a hope that poetic artistry can overcome the downward pulls of violence and gendered despair.