Leos Carax on ‘Annette’ and the Cinema of Doubt

Leos Carax, the enigmatic French director behind spectacularly peculiar films like “Holy Motors,” would rather be talking about love. Or beauty. Or ghosts. Anything other than his new musical melodrama, “Annette.”

“There’s something crazy about a filmmaker — or any artist — being interviewed right after they’ve finished” a project, Carax told me over cigarettes and water on a restaurant terrace in SoHo, his voice hushed and gravelly.

“People ask me what my films are about and I never know what to say,” he said. “There shouldn’t be questions and answers, but questions and more questions and doubts.”

In a cinematic landscape overrun by superheroes and safe ideas, Carax’s films are refreshingly outré, defiantly bombastic and deliberately upsetting. “If you’re going to make a musical, you’ve got to be either ambitious or pretentious,” he added.

Naturally, each of his six feature films have been accompanied by a flurry of commotion.

Carax, who is now 60, began his career at 23 with the brooding black-and-white love story, “Boy Meets Girl,” a lyrical mélange of classical cinematic tropes that announced his arrival as the torchbearer of French cinema. “The Lovers on the Bridge” (1992), starring his girlfriend at the time, Juliette Binoche, was marred by its infamously protracted production schedule; to this day the drama remains one of the most expensive French films ever made. “Pola X” (1999) was a provocative adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Pierre, or the Ambiguities,” featuring an incestuous relationship and an unsimulated sex scene.

He steers clear of the noise, if he can help it. Last month at the Cannes Film Festival, where he won the prize for best director for his work on “Annette,” Carax skipped the closing ceremony. (Now in theaters, the musical will be available on Amazon starting next Friday.)

The film, Carax’s first in English, is an unabashedly anti-commercial endeavor featuring artfully staged cunnilingus, multiple watery graves and a singing baby puppet. Henry (Adam Driver), a pernicious stand-up comedian, falls in love with Ann (Marion Cotillard), an ethereal opera singer. The couple’s halcyon days quickly give way to Sturm und Drang when their bundle of (wooden) joy is born, setting off Henry’s chaotic decline.

“Annette,” in typical Caraxian fashion, has proved highly divisive among critics: In The Times, A.O. Scott called it “utterly unreal and completely truthful,” while Stephanie Zacharek of Time magazine said the payoff was “skimpy.” The critic Amy Taubin, whom I spoke to over the phone, said she was “floored.” Yet she found the film so “suffused with agonized male guilt” that she would never see it again.

Written by Russell and Ron Mael of the pop duo Sparks, “Annette” was originally conceived as a concept album before Carax was enlisted to direct — a “liberating” experience for the filmmaker, whose screenwriting method (or lack thereof) involves scrambling to “organize his notes” simply for the purposes of securing financing.

“I’m not a storyteller,” he explained. “I try to compose emotional scores, like movements that flow into minor and major keys. I feel like an impostor when I have to speak. That’s what the camera is for. Without it, I feel foolish.”

By phone, Cotillard — an admirer of Carax’s work since watching “The Lovers on the Bridge” as an aspiring actress in the early ’90s — explained the virtues of his improvisatory approach. “I’d done musicals before where I had to record the songs, then lip-sync on set, but Leos had us sing everything live. It would have been frustrating not to be able to change an intention or feeling during the shoot because everything had already been recorded.”

A musically minded filmmaker whose work has prominently featured songs by David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Carax considered the collaboration with Sparks to be a “miracle,” adding, “Of all the music I’ve listened to in my life, Sparks has brought me the most joy. They’re comforting, like a childhood home without all of the family drama.”

Carax remembers discovering the pop duo when he was a teenager, back in the days when he made extra cash by “stealing records and selling them,” he said. Yet at first, Carax turned down the offer, not wanting the film’s fraught father-daughter relationship to confuse his own teenage daughter, Nastya, or invite speculation on the parallels between the film and his life, given his tendency to transform his male leads into proxies of himself. He reversed course, however, when she took a liking to songs Sparks had sent him, creating the opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings.

For Taubin, “Annette” is a “staged fantasy not miles apart from ‘Pinocchio’ or ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”

However adverse he is to critical analysis, Carax agreed that his films try to tap into the children within us.

“Cinema is an art of haunting: of being haunted and of haunting other people,” he said. “It has to do with ghosts, and our childlike connection to them. The image of an orphan in front of a screen is a feeling I go back to all the time.”

After finishing high school in the Parisian suburbs, Carax moved to the city by himself, and obsessively frequented the Cinémathèque Française. “It’s very powerful to be alone in a new city and watch silent films,” he said. For all its communal pleasures, the cinematic experience can also be intimate and cerebral, a vivid dream — or nightmare — that sweeps you onto its emotional wavelength.

Yet in Carax’s musical fantasia, people kill, get laid and use the toilet.

The killing comes courtesy of Henry, a leather-jacket-wearing baddie whose hulking frame and irascible persona obliterates those around him. Carax’s regular leading man is the shape-shifting and acrobatically gifted Denis Lavant, who is considered one of modern film’s most distinctive performers, but the director was drawn to Driver ever since seeing him in the HBO series “Girls.”

“I needed motion — cinema is motion — and he has that; he’s willing to change his body, like an alien,” Carax said.

One of the biggest challenges was building out Henry’s act. “I needed to come up with two acts that were funny in a way that’s never been done before, which was impossible, Carax explained. “I came up with something intimate and actually not-so-funny.” Henry’s act is an onslaught of cringeworthy confessions sprinkled with gas-chamber jokes. It’s a blend of the “wondrous, grotesque and obscene,” said Carax, that so attracts him to comedians like Andy Kaufman and Lenny Bruce.

For Ann — an intentionally archetypal figure reminiscent of the fragile damsels of film history — Cotillard was shown an interview with the French-German actress Romy Schneider. “Leos wanted me to study her behavior, how in one moment she’s confident and talking about her art, and the next she’s full of love and vulnerability,” Cotillard said.

Carax lives what seems like a quiet life with his daughter, and spends his time playing the accordion (a hobby he picked up after “Holy Motors”), reading and taking nightly walks.

“I need to be alone a lot,” he said, adding, “It’s just hard to know who I want and who wants me.” He’s content with the company of his pets: two dogs, two cats and some ferrets.

Though his style brims with cinematic references, Carax has no interest in watching films anymore — unless coerced by Nastya. Asked about his thoughts on the state of contemporary cinema, he appeared resigned.

“Cinema has to reinvent itself, because it loses power,” he said.

“We stopped being surprised by the arrival of a train at the station,” he continued, with a reference to the Lumière brothers’ 1895 short. “Today, kids see explosions and mutants, and it’s not magical anymore.”

The online discourse doesn’t help.

“You have people on Facebook and Twitter trying to lead these reductive discussions about what’s good or bad,” he said. “Yet a film is about putting your doubts and stupidity onscreen. If you don’t do that, you have to be a master, like Hitchcock or Bresson. I’m not a master.”

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