Cannes Diary—Day 1: Annette, Jodie, and a Very Flash Backpack

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Festiville’s Cannes correspondent Brian Formo files his first diary entry from the 2021 edition, featuring Leos Carax’s Annette, Jodie Foster’s perfect French, and a seamless kickoff after many complaints.

“So, may we start?” asks director Leos Carax (Holy Motors) before the Sparks brothers, Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg take to the streets of Los Angeles to sing the first song in Carax’s new film, Annette. The film—bizarre, transcendent, and much more despondent than the first trailer would lead you to believe—launched the 2021 edition Cannes Film Festival.

Annette would have played at the 2020 festival if not for the Covid-19 pandemic. There are many films at the Croisette this year that would have debuted at this very place last year (Wes Anderson’s The French DispatchPaul Verhoeven’s Benedetta and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island just being a few). But before I go a tad deeper into Annette, I’d like to start with how the first day of the first only-in-person film festival since Sundance 2020 went.

Honestly, I still need to process Carax’s latest opus and just the wonder of being here at all.
Cannes is a festival I’ve long wanted to go to and this will be my first one. Actually, I’d not even been to France before, so I have already been in the country for more than a week, visiting Paris for the first time. If you’re extremely online, you’ve probably seen many complaints about how Cannes was unfolding before tonight. For the seasoned folk, numerous emails about changing Covid protocols were deeply unnerving and so too was the move to a ticket system instead of a badge queue. 

Hidden in murky translated language, the read-between-the-lines message was that non-EU members need to get tested every 48 hours regardless of any vaccination records they have that granted them access to travel to France. And, the ticket site crashed for hours within the first 30 minutes of being online. So my arrival into Cannes was full of anxiety—but, in removing myself from Twitter freak-outs, it’s been seamless since I arrived. The cobwebs were well shaken off by the time I set foot in the Palais and was given the swag: a fuckin’ watermarked red carpet backpack for, let’s be honest, my Parisian knick-knacks.

Where many saw disorder unfolding, I witnessed a major event occurring. The rules are being rewritten day-to-day because this—to remind you, Cannes is the first major in-person film festival in eighteen months—is brand new territory. By the time people actually collected their badges and all the signage was up, I had noticed a change on the ticket site. Suddenly, spit tests were only required to pick up your badge (if you didn’t have proof of vaccinations) and to visit two particular areas of the festival complex.

I am highly online, but I only actually post with regularity on this very app, so it felt like alternate realities were unfolding. Sure, the ticket site went a little slowly this morning, but unless you’re trying to hit the marketplace to contribute big bucks to a potential film on the market or sneak in a question at a press conference, the every-48-hour test actually isn’t necessary. More time for the beach, more time for movies, more time for sleep.

I applaud the efforts here to put on this event right now. It’s easy to look for a minor inconvenience as a structural malfunction but just being here to watch this slate of films is an amazing feeling for anyone, like myself, who misses film festivals more than the second or third-tier people in their lives. I live in Los Angeles where the seasons barely change and so I mark the passing of each year by the regular festivals attended. I’m grateful to each and every person who’s working to put Cannes on. Outside of some lead-up questions, tonight was so well done. Welcome back to cinemas, indeed.

What a magical thing for my return to the cinemas—my temple, my first job and my current pay stub—to be at the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival. Essentially a truncated awards show, there was an opening cinema-is-important/comedy(?) bit in French, then Jodie Foster received her lifetime achievement award (speaking en Français), then there was a career retrospective on Foster from Pedro Almodóvar (delivered in English). Then the Cannes 2020-2021 head-of-jury Spike Lee said, in English, that he wished he could speak French like Jodie Foster (whom he directed in 2006’s Inside Man). Finally, Bong Joon-ho, who won the last Palme d’Or in 2019 for Parasite, invited the quartet—Foster, Almodóvar, Lee and Director Bong—to say “Cannes is now open” in Spanish, French, Korean and English.

For me, Annette opening Cannes hit at a very specific time. Firstly, I’d recently watched and was blown away by his second film, Mauvais Sang, an extremely vibrant, outlandish and chaotic work of wonder. And secondly, Carax’s English-language debut—from a story by the Sparks brothers (yes, the subjects of Edgar Wright’s recent documentary, which details several other unrealized film projects)—is set in Los Angeles, which, ten days into my travels, I already miss.

Annette

Annette is already proving to be that Cannes-baiting word, “divisive”. It is a story that you shouldn’t know too much about because the element of surprise is massive here. Without giving anything away, there is a puppet baby, a cross between Twilight’s Renesmee and Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik, but the powers of said puppet baby and the locations that those powers take it will remain completely under wraps here.

So how did we get to a wooden puppet baby? You see, Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann (Marion Cotillard) are in love. He is a performance artist/stand-up comic and she is an opera singer (insert Avril Lavigne: “Can I make it any more obvious?”). He describes his routine as “I killled them” and she describes her performance as “I saved them”.

We meet Ann and Henry at the height of their honeymoon phase, where a song highlights their differences while a sex montage highlights their physical connection. (For all the hype about Driver singing a single word in between diving back in for cunnilingus, it’s more impressive to me how Cotillard, in her big solo, takes drags from cigarettes while on the toilet and fits in a wipe while not missing a note.)

Annette, like almost all Carax films, is both beguiling and messy. For much of the loose and ramshackle first act it feels like it’s not going anywhere, other than nice moments between beautiful and successful people living their best lives. But, as several early Letterboxd reviews agree, it shifts gears and finds its feet. “Every scene is a stylistic ejaculation,” writes Jack Salvadori, “but [Carax’s] unquenchable, self-indulgent thirst for the cinematic eventually finds its story.” Writing after a Lisbon press screening, Cláudio Alves “was into the melodramatic derangement, loving it even as the dysfunction became too much to ignore. In the end, it was all part of the unholy fun.” (Not everyone’s a fan: “This film can f—k right off,” is Brimmer-Beller’s best advice.)

While the music is undeniably Sparks, the tonal shifts, approach to art and eventually, the personal story, are all Carax. Driver is an absolute tour de force during Henry’s unraveling performance. Unfortunately, while Cotillard sings her heart out, the movie is less interested in her character. Every time she appears on screen, she commits to willing her character into a movie that’s less interested in her, outside of Ann being the opposite of Henry.

Some personal misgivings and undeniable third-act messiness aside, Annette is completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Carax always takes the biggest swing, at every ball, hit or miss—and he has a few massive hits here. While we’re on the topic of sport, Annette recreates the Super Bowl as “The Hyper Bowl”. Carax including American football’s most popular event should key you in to how wild of an experience Annette is.

A puppet baby and the Super Bowl. Yeah, Cannes might be working to make attendees feel safe but, at least so far, the filmmakers aren’t, which is a relief.

Bonne nuit. 

Pictured: detail of the very flash Cannes backpack, photographed by Brian.