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Paul Asay

Movie Review

“I killed them. Destroyed them. Murdered them.”

That’s how Henry McHenry describes a good night of work.

Henry’s a comedian, and his schtick is shock. He triggers laughter as much through discomfort as through actual humor. “Making people laugh is a disgusting, deceitful trick anyway,” he tells his audience, wrapping the microphone cord around his neck as he pretends to hang himself. But laugh they do, and they pay for more.

If Henry kills, Ann dies. As one of the world’s most celebrated opera sopranos, she dies and dies and dies again—on cue and with a melodic flourish to a weeping, applauding audience.

“You die so magnificently,” Henry tells his beautiful significant other. And so, it seems, she does.

The two make quite the celebrity couple—he the lewd, low-brow comic; she the porcelein-perfect singer. The paparazzi is, naturally, smitten with the couple. And when the two officially marry and (gasp) have a beautiful little baby, their pictures are plastered all over supermarket checkout lines.

But all is not wonderful in this wonderland.

Shortly after their little girl, Annette, is born, things begin to unravel. Ann’s star rises unabated. But Henry’s act is wearing thin. In Las Vegas, when he jokes about killing his wife, he’s jeered off the stage. The tabloids breathlessly report that the couple’s marriage has hit stormy seas, and it seems headed for the rocks.

So, naturally, the little family decides to work things out on a boat—the family yacht, if you must know.

But one night, a real storm springs up to accompany the relational one. The ship is tossed and rocked. And after Ann tries to soothe Annette to sleep, she finds Henry outside—soaked to the skin and soused.

There, Henry forces Ann to dance on the shipdeck, the waves roiling higher and higher, the boat rolling and heaving like a cork.

By the end of that terrible, dark night, the lives on that boat will be forever changed.

Positive Elements

We don’t have a lot of positives to point to in this surreal rock opera, but Ann seems to be a caring mother. And Ann’s longtime accompanist—a character without a formal name in the film—serves as a doting father figure to little Annette at times.

Spiritual Elements

Henry calls himself the “Ape of God” for his act—a hint that the film obliquely leans into spirituality. The comic is often base and bestial, we see plenty of visual references to apes and monkeys throughout the film—pushing the character into an almost Darwinian box, a man lacking a spark of divinity. In the latter stages, Henry bears a wound or mark on his face, and I wonder whether the movie’s creators intended it to be an echo of the mark of Cain.

Ann, the opera singer, strikes a different figure. While Henry says he “killed” his audience, Ann says she “saved” hers—and through her death. At one point, Henry rails at Ann, chastising her for her “sacred values.” But she’s no Christ figure; often she’s shown eating an apple, which may suggest that she, like Eve, has fallen from grace—tempted by Henry into a place of potential destruction.

As part of his act, Henry talks about the animosity between Catholics and Muslims and quips, “Everybody hates the Jews.” Ann’s voice is compared to that of a “goddess.” Henry mentions his “sins,” and a tragedy is referred to an “act of God.”

[Spoiler Warning] A ghost haunts the last half of the film, and it seems to supernaturally imbue Annette, Ann and Henry’s little 2-year-old daughter, with the ability to sing beautifully. “Annette is a miracle,” Henry says. “Miracles do exist.” There’s a reference to someone becoming a vampire.

Sexual Content

Henry and Ann have sex a few times during the film, both obviously and completely naked. While most of the most critical parts of each’s anatomy is covered during their intimacies by hands or hips, the movements and positions e highly erotic. One scene involves bare breasts.

Henry moons his audience during a performance. His act always features Henry wearing just a bathrobe and a pair of boxer brief—opening or losing the bathrobe entirely at some juncture. He employs a quartet of female singers who appear on stage in negligee. We see him shirtless frequently, and Ann sometimes appears in a bathing suit. Women at a nightclub dress somewhat provocatively and seem to lithely tempt a willing Henry.

Henry also talks a great deal about his and Ann’s sex life during a comedic performance.

We learn that someone had an affair with Ann before she met Henry, and Annette’s paternity is called into question (though, frankly—unless Henry and Ann’s courtship was incredibly fast, that whole question seems as though it’d be easily dispelled).

We hear lewd references to sexual acts. Henry cavorts at bars filled with women, wondering what they could see in him, and he makes lewd jokes on stage. When Ann’s in labor, Henry looks between Ann’s legs at the arriving baby and quips that she’s “almost completely naked.” We hear a reference to having oral sex in a gas chamber.

Violent Content

At least two people are killed during the film. One dies off camera, but another drowns before our eyes. (The character is pushed and wrestled before dying, as well.)

For most of the film, Annette is portrayed as a marionette-like doll, and that doll sometimes sports damage. The film’s surreal atmosphere and frequent forays into literal dreams sometimes make it hard to say what actually happened; we can be reasonably sure that the cuts and stitches we see on Annette’s forehead at times reflect some sort of reality. Less certain is a scene in which Henry, drinking and smoking heavily, realizes that he’s sitting on his baby. He gets up and sees Annette’s doll legs have been crushed. [Spoiler Warning] Near the end of the film, the doll lies lifelessly on the floor; in this dreamy context, that lifelessness could represent something other than physical death.

In what seems like another dream—this time by Ann—we hear that six women have come forward in a #MeToo-like movement to accuse Henry of misdeeds, and complain of being “subjected to his rage.” They came forward, they say, because they were worried about Ann also falling prey to his violent temper.

That temper, along with a tendency to self-destruction, is often hinted at during Henry’s act. He references suicide often, pretending to hang himself with his microphone cord. (“They say that my show kills,” he quips.) At one point, shots ring out in the auditorium, and Henry falls down, apparently dead. Then he raises his hand—an indication that it was only a joke. “I too can die,” he says, taking a swipe at his wife’s penchant for dying on stage. When the audience turns on him, he rages at them—eventually chucking the microphone into the crowd and smashing dishes on a table. Most uncomfortably, he tells the audience that he tickled his wife to death—pantomiming the whole episode (and his subsequent attempted suicide in the same way) for their “enjoyment.”

The snip of an umbilical cord feels vaguely threatening. We see snippets of Ann’s operatic performances, some of which involve her being stabbed or dying in a bloody dress.

Crude or Profane Language

The f-word is used about 30 times, and the s-word six. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “g-dd–n,” “h—” and “p–sy.” Middle fingers are flashed repeatedly.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Both Henry and Ann smoke, and Henry appears to be a heavy smoker. He jokes about it on stage (hacking comically for the laughing audience) and in one scene (perhaps a dream) in which his ashtray is filled with cigarette butts.

Henry also drinks quite a bit, and he’s clearly drunk during a couple of really critical scenes (that might’ve turned out differently had he been sober). When he goes to a nightclub, he speculates the women there like him because he’s “rich and drunk.” When he reveals Annette’s singing talent to a friend, he offers him a drink—a drink the friend readily accepts. He pours out liquor on a plane.

Henry habitually takes a pill—perhaps a sleeping pill—before going to bed.

Other Negative Elements

In the movie’s opening moments, an unseen narrator tells the audience to settle in and not make a noise for the rest of the movie, including breathing and passing gas. We see Henry rebuckle his pants after using a urinal.

When Annette’s talent for singing is discovered, Henry proposes that she tour the world—suggesting that it’d be immoral to withhold her gift. Someone tells him that he’s really just exploiting her—a charge he denies. Henry lies elsewhere, as well. Annette seems to reject both of her parents, telling us that they both used her for their own selfish ends.

Conclusion

Some people lament that movies are too boring these days—that everything’s a paint-by-numbers CGI spectacle or a rote Oscarbait flick or a saccharine family cartoon. Why doesn’t anyone take chances in cinema anymore? They lament, stroking their beards and sipping their espressos, taking care not to dribble any on their scarves.

And then comes along a movie like Annette, and suddenly the next Marvel movie doesn’t look so bad.

To be fair, many critics seem to like Annette. I am not among them.

This surreal rock opera was written by Ron and Russell Mael, founders of the pop-rock band Sparks, and directed by Frenchman Leos Carax. And you can’t fault the production for a lack of innovation or ambition. And at times, the story can feel almost Shakespearian—in form, at least, if not in language.

But Annette, for all its artistic flourishes and metaphysical musings, is a rather empty thing—an ice sculpture that thinks it’s steak. And it’s a rather salacious ice sculpture at that. While the plot feels ethereal and ambiguous, the sex scenes paradoxically leave nothing hidden. For a dark film that seems to relish the shadows, it sure turns on the lights at inconvenient times.

We’d say that not many families would seek out a movie like Annette anyway: too artsy, too sensual, too weird. But remember, it’s on Amazon Prime as of Aug. 20, which means that any family member with a Prime account and a hand firm enough to hold a remote can stumble across this bit of cinema … and get an eyeful.

Annette is haunting and weird and jarring, and it means to be all of those things. But for its excesses and pretentions, I would give Annette a no.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.