Cecil Selwyn’s review published on Letterboxd:
If Holy Motors was Carax's tribute to the human body in motion and early cinema's limitation to the contained scene, Annette is his exploration of the film industry's mid-20th century foundational canon of romance films and, of course, musicals, and where we are now as the 21st century moves forward but popular media remains bound to the past, content to wrap old ideas in new clothing.
The film's opening lines, taken from the earliest known recording of a human voice, imply an even higher aspiration: that Carax is exploring the very nature of recorded media. Annette explores the nature of performance, raising questions such as what it means to record an action and what the forced permanence of an otherwise fleeting instance can potentially achieve. Does a permanent record create the opportunity of accountability, or ensure a recurring evil?
The latter is certainly what the bulk of Annette suggests: lyrics are repeated ad nauseum, melodies pop up again and again, six women precede Ann's fate. The recording of events doesn't appear to matter much, only provide the hope of accountability without the follow through suggested.
Is it something we should cheer? Is it something we should fear?
There's a metatextual horror/humor to it: we the literal audience alongside the diegetic audience witness everything but are powerless to act; any disgust shown is a footnote because we asked for this: the creation of narrative drama, of violence, is necessitated. In the same sense that Holy Motors consists of a series of performances for "no one", the characters of Annette are always performing for us.
The fictional audience turns on Henry an hour into the film, but by now the damage is done. The disdain for others that has always been there, the genuine hatred barely masked under a guise of self-depreciation up to this point was ignored, and the consequence is not one but two lives.
I'm a good father.
The trappings of a classic musical tragedy are taken to their logical conclusion, up to a certain point. Henry is not only the central focus of the film but untouchable, he fails upwards and avoids accountability even to himself, obscuring his actions by pretending they have a deeper purpose, a noble reasoning beyond him.
This is encapsulated by the police interrogation: Henry is not lying, he genuinely believes his actions are dissociated from himself. There's always an excuse, a justification for his deeds, a reason to not think too deeply about things. Henry cannot self-reflect, cannot recognize himself, can never look to The Abyss.
Darkness, then a very sweet soft light...
The difference between Annette's performance and Ann's is that the latter is in full control of herself, whereas the former is under Henry's control. Annette's purity ceases the public's fervor, her talent is separated, in the eyes of the audience, from the monster that profits from it.
The futility of the audience's turn against him is shown best in that phenomena; they no longer consume his art directly, but he continues to benefit once the face, the blunt offensiveness of Henry's act, has shifted to something innocent and beautiful.
Daddy kills people.
In the end, it's Annette's extremely public, recorded accusation that brings Henry to justice. Recorded media and its audience, up to this point complicit in his evil, is shown to have the potential to bring about change. Not only through punishing individuals, but by shaping the culture, systems, and stories we demand to see.
Now you have nothing to love.
The final sequence of the film is its most vital, a complete condemnation of Henry and his bullshit. Just as he belts out justification for his actions, he is disowned, scorned, rejected entirely by his own daughter, the only great thing he ever helped create. Annette finds autonomy, diagnosing the poison she inherited with conviction. There will be no forgiveness, there cannot be.
Only the total rejection of systemic evil can ensure its eradication, that the endlessly recurring motifs are silenced. And in Henry's case, the observation of his actions is his downfall. The audience, previously encouraged to sympathize with him and even root for his redemption, become his condemnation, his never-ending torment.
Stop watching me.
In the final moments, as Henry looks into the camera, I can't help but wonder if we are The Abyss that makes him so afraid.