Leos Carax’s Annette, starring Adam Driver in an all-singing rock opera, opened Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews –take a trip through the rule-breaking French cinema anarchist’s career so far
SPARKS IN THE RECORDING STUDIO WITH ADAM DRIVER
Then again, perhaps Carax’s playful, idiosyncratic essence can be summed up by the fact that Leos Carax is not his real name. Born as Alexandre Christophe Dupont, Carax chose his professional pseudonym because it’s an anagram of “Alex” and “Oscar” – hence the confusion over its pronunciation. The ostentatious “UN FILM DE LEOS CARAX” credit first adorned the big screen for his 1984 debut, Boy Meets Girl, a black-and-white tribute to French New Wave romances, and reappeared two years later for Mauvais sang, a beautiful, bizarre, neo-noir sci-fi about a sexually transmitted virus and the pleasures of jogging to David Bowie’s “Modern Love”. Yes, it’s the one that was ripped off paid homage to by Frances Ha.
For a while, Carax seemed prolific. His greatest film, 1991’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (a pun on Carax’s real surname), was supposed to cost eight million francs; during production, the budget ballooned to 70 million francs, making it France’s then most expensive film of all time and in turn almost destroying Carax’s career. After 1999’s Pola X – a provocative, incestuous drama with unsimulated sex – completely failed at the box office, Carax struggled for more than a decade to finance any projects. When Carax eventually returned with 2012’s Holy Motors, it was packed with so many ideas and nostalgic references that many speculated it was a farewell to the industry. Basically, to say that Annette is long-awaited is an understatement.
SPARKS IN THE RECORDING STUDIO WITH MARION COTILLARD
What’s crucial to know, though, is that, despite the fake name, Carax’s movies are personal to the extreme. In Carax’s first three features, the protagonists are hopeless romantics called Alex. In the 80s and 90s, Carax would cast whoever he was dating as the female lead: Mireille Perrier in Boy Meets Girl; Juliette Binoche in Mauvais sang and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf; Yekaterina Golubeva in Pola X. Holy Motors, a mournful movie, was dedicated to Golubeva, who died shortly before the shoot.
However, Annette, more than anything, simply looks like a hoot. The singing! The dancing! Trying to guess which role Rihanna dropped out of playing! With a theatrical release planned for later this year, it means we all have a goal this summer: get the vax for Carax. In anticipation of Annette’s Cannes premiere and inevitable flurry of five-star reviews (and perplexed one-star responses), here’s an introduction to Carax through eight YouTube clips. Think of them like singles promoting an album – after watching these sequences, you’ll be desperate to dive into Carax’s filmography.
SPRINTING TO DAVID BOWIE’S ‘MODERN LOVE’ IN MAUVAIS SANG
In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Carax took until Annette to produce a full-blown musical. In Mauvais sang (released in English-speaking countries as Bad Blood and The Night Is Young), Alex, as played by Denis Lavant, mansplains the power of radio to Anna (Juliette Binoche). By chance, the DJ’s next tune, a request from “Juliette in midtown”, is David Bowie’s “Modern Love”, prompting Alex to run through a Parisian street while punching his stomach and performing cartwheels with wild abandon. All the while, Alex glides past a kaleidoscopic background, floating as he connects with the ecstasy of Bowie’s rising melodies.
Then the song stops abruptly. Alex returns to Anna for a sombre conversation. The movie continues, though Bowie still echoes through your brain. When asked why Frances runs through New York to “Modern Love” in Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig commented, “I would like to figure out how to be a lady Denis Lavant… Carax movies have this not literal quality that I think I’d be interested in being taken away and fucked up by.”
KYLIE MINOGUE SINGING ‘WHO ARE WE’ IN HOLY MOTORS
Holy Motors is Carax showing off. CGI aliens having sex, limousines with the power of speech, and other perverse images you didn’t realise tickled your fancy. Then at the 83-minute mark, Jean (Kylie) enters and, with complete sincerity, performs a haunting ballad to Oscar (Lavant). “Lovers turn into monsters and yearn to be far apart,” the popstar croons. “No new beginnings. Some die, some go on living.”
On its own, Kylie’s cameo demonstrates the dreamlike, undeniable power of a movie character bursting into song. No special effects, just raw emotion. However, the scene resonates further (“we have 20 minutes to catch up on 20 years”) with the knowledge that Carax created the role for Binoche, his former romantic partner, and that the scene’s setting – the shopping centre La Samaritaine – is a callback to Binoche and Lavant’s adventures in 1991’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. Carax clarified Binoche’s absence: “We tried to do something together but we didn't get along.”
JULIETTE BINOCHE IN LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF
On a ludicrously expensive recreation of the Pont-Neuf bridge, two homeless artists, Alex (Lavant) and Michèle (Binoche), acrobatically transport their bodies from one side of the screen to the other while dodging fireworks crashing from above. Lost in his thoughts, Lavant smashes glass bottles and screams into the midnight sky; looking cool as hell, Binoche leaps backwards on the parapet, somehow not slipping into Montpellier Lake.
Similarly to the Bowie sprint in Mauvais sang, Lavant and Binoche’s emphatic dance moves are choreographed to an external soundtrack – in this case, song snippets ranging from Benjamin Britten to Public Enemy. When the camera pulls out to reveal that they have the bridge to themselves amidst Bastille celebrations, it’s pure cinema.
THE FLOWER-EATING SEWAGE MONSTER IN TOKYO!
While Michel Gondry and Bong Joon-ho contributed shorts to the triptych Tokyo!, the standout contribution is certainly Carax’s 37-minute segment, “Merde”. Mr Merde, as played by Lavant, is a barefoot creature who crawls out of a manhole and terrorises strangers on the street – well, he steals someone’s crutches, then munches on flowers like they’re Kettle Chips. By the end, Mr Merde is facing the death penalty and requiring a lawyer who can translate his made-up language.
Still, the courtroom comedy can’t beat the anarchic opening and the quasi-prank show manner in which Mr Merde interacts with pedestrians. Bizarrely, Carax attempted to shoot a full-length sequel called Merde in the USA with Lavant and Kate Moss; when that fell apart, he resurrected Mr Merde for Holy Motors.
DENIS LAVANT LEARNING ABOUT SILENT MOVIES IN BOY MEETS GIRL
There’s little disguising the autobiography of a story about a frustrated filmmaker called Alex (Lavant) who falls in love with a wannabe performer, Mireille (Carax’s then girlfriend, Mireille Perrier). However, Boy Meets Girl, which premiered at Cannes when Carax was 23, is as cinematic as a talky drama can be.
My favourite sequence when Alex marches out at night listening to David Bowie’s “When I Live My Dream” on headphones. He wanders down a moonlit bridge, eyes closed, and fantasises about Mireille; her superimposed tap-dancing feet enter the top of the frame, and then, a few seconds later, her ecstatic, Bowie-influenced moves takes over the entire screen. It’s Carax in a black-and-white, carefully composed nutshell: two lost souls connected by a single melody.
That clip, however, isn’t on YouTube, so watch this substitute: a stranger regaling Alex about the history of silent movies.
THE DRUM EXPLOSION IN POLA X
Adapted from a Herman Melville novel, Carax’s fourth feature was inarguably boundary-pushing, just not in the manner audiences wanted. The unpleasant plot consists of Pierre (Guillaume Depardieu) discovering his long-lost sister, Isabelle (Yekaterina Golubeva), and then embarking on a sexual affair – the graphic cunnilingus between siblings is an acquired taste, so to speak.
Less uncomfortable is Scott Walker’s noisy soundtrack and when the pair stumble into a warehouse packed with musicians causing a racket – among the instrumentalists are Bill Callahan and Rammstein frontman Till Lindemann. Unfortunately, the film is also known for showcasing some of the final performances by Depardieu and Golubeva – they died, respectively, aged 37 in 2008 and 44 in 2011.
JULIETTE BINOCHE LEAPING OFF A PLANE IN MAUVAIS SANG
“Don’t forget – bend your knees as you land,” Alex advises Anna before they parachute off a plane. The legitimately terrifying sequence, shot for real without any stunt actors, captures Lavant and Binoche choreographing themselves to be both balletic and romantic as their bodies unite however many feet up in the air. When asked about it later, Binoche revealed, “I thought I was dead… I thought I had passed to the other side.”
All in all, it’s evidence that Carax should do a Mission: Impossible film. Or Tom Cruise should do a Carax film. Either works.
THE OPERATIC TRAILER FOR ANNETTE
Here’s what we do know: Henry (Adam Driver) is a stand-up comic, Ann (Marion Cotillard) is an opera star, and they give birth to a baby called Annette with mysterious powers. Something dramatic happens at sea, one of the actors from The Big Bang Theory is in it a lot for some reason, and Henry does a bad-tempered comedy show in his dressing gown. Or it’s all a dream within a dream. Who really knows?
While the trailer does seem to be narrated, Russell Mael of Sparks promises, “95 per cent of it is sung in a way that’s stylistically true to Sparks’ sensibility, if you can imagine that. Adam Driver doing Sparks, that’s what we have.” Which is exciting for many reasons, one of which is learning what words Carax uses to rhyme with Henry. Benry? Kenry?
Although critics won’t see it before Cannes, Annette was shot and nearly entirely edited in 2019. 13 months ago, in May 2020, film producer and industry insider Ted Hope tweeted his review: “May the most pleasurable devastation soon wrap you in its arm and smother us all with mind-blowing weirdness and wonder.” Until it hits cinemas, let’s just watch the trailer again. And again. And again. And again.