Love it or hate it - and I stand before you as proof positive that one can do both of those things simultaneously - it must at least be declared that Annette is a fearless work of capital-A Art, the kind of increasingly rare motion picture that demands to be wrestled with and worked over rather than simply absorbed. The sixth feature by the anti-prolific Leos Carax and the first in the nine years since 2012's Holy Motors, finds the provocative and unfriendly director in characteristic form, making a film that certainly seems like it ought to be easy to get on top of, not least because it's so unabashedly direct in its scene-by-scene emotional appeals. But it's also misshapen and spiky, a film pitching so many thoughts from so many angles, both narratively and stylistically, that by the time one has figured out how to grapple with the thing that just happened, a brand new and largely different thing has replaced it.

This preamble is, in part, a fancy way of saying that I've been letting the movie percolate for days now, and I still haven't figured out how to talk about it. By the time the monumental 141-minute running time has ended, I fully adored Annette, and would happily stack it next to any of Carax's earlier films. A third of the way through that runtime, I was convinced that the director had lost absolutely all of his talent and I was feeling vaguely mortified to have ever been looking forward to it. The shift that happens in the middle can be pinpointed to the exact scene (it takes place on a boat), but a sensitivity to spoilers leaves me reluctant to discuss any part of the movie in any detail except the bits that confounded me when I didn't merely find it an overreaching failure. So I apologise, dear reader, for what will surely end up coming off as a particularly vague and impressionistic film review.

Given how very obviously Carax has poured all the things he hates most about himself into the film - the protagonist, played by Adam Driver, has even been made up to look like the director as it approaches its ending and the film becomes most obviously repulsed by him - it's a little surprising that Annette originated entirely apart from Carax's influence. It originated as a never-recorded concept album devised by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who have been toiling since the late '60s in some obscurity as the art-rock band Sparks (Sparks is having a good year for showing up in movies by cult-favorite directors: earlier in 2021, Edgar Wright made a documentary titled The Sparks Brothers, making the argument "I like these guys and I bet if you'd ever heard of them, you would too" at great length and with limited stylistic inspiration*). Carax met the Maels after putting a Sparks song on the soundtrack of Holy Motors, learned of Annette, and here we are.

"Here", in this case, drops us right into the whirlwind courtship between Henry McHenry (Driver), a notorious and provocative stand-up comic, and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), a superstar opera singer. Among the film's many successful tricks for keeping us off balance, at least the opening quarter or third of the film moves throught its plot points more like a chronicle than a story. It's determined to keep us from ever getting a handle on these characters, or especially on their relationship, which seems to exist at the distant remove of something only experienced thirdhand through tabloids and celebrity gossip - as the film makes explicit by placing most of its actual narrative developments into brief segments from the fictional "Showbizz News", which tackily catches us up on the events in the couples' life together. The actual scenes, then, are less about moving story forward than they are about holding moments in time, expanding them, making a single emotional beat seem to be the entire movie. And it's mostly sung, with Drive and Cotillard gamely and not always with a surplus of talent baying their way through the Maels' music (this does not feel like an accident, nor even a flaw). So a scene = a song = a single piercing feeling.

It's more than a little operatic, and of course the film is explicit about that, also. At any rate, the first half of Annette is a very odd thing - so is the second half, but it's a different odd thing. The first half gives us the summary version of Henry and Ann's emotionally turbulent life and marraige, including the birth of their daughter Annette, whose arrival is the first major pivot point, and not only because of the changes to the story. Very abruptly, the visual language of the film warps itself around Carax's rather brazen decision about how best to portray the little girl, and I almost feel like this is itself a spoiler, albeit a mild one, as a stiff, pseudo-expressive puppet, whose operators have been digitally erased out of the film. Annette is a remarkable figure, and her arrival substantially alters the film that bears her name: her face never moves on camera, but simply appears as a series of different expressions, ranging from joy to fear, and the giant gulf between how emotionally resonant each pose is in and of itself, and the film's total disinterest in making us believe in the organic reality of the figure between those poses is the first place that I felt like I really understood what the film was driving at.

Prior to Annette's birth, I confess, I couldn't find any way into the movie at all. After a splendid opening number, jokey meta-humor on the surface in the mode of the accordion scene from Holy Motors that becomes much more ambivalent and ambiguous the more you attend to the meanings obliquely suggested by the Maels' spare lyrics, Annette drops us into its unequivocally worst scene, a long visit into Henry's stand-up set, as he berates his audience for loving someone as vulgar and wretched as himself, to music. This immediately sets up the problem that I don't think the film ever resolves: it spends a lot of its first hour acting like a cultural satire, something completely undermined by how little connection the film seems to have with any actual culture that exists in the world of humans. The stand-up is the worst of this (the second-worst is a brief nod to #MeToo and the outing of serial sexual abusers that seems to mark a huge pivot in the film that simply doesn't happen, and the whole scene seems to exist solely to suggest that Ann has unresolved worries that Henry may be violent), with a routine that simply doesn't make sense as anything other than an abstract, heavily stylised register that's not at all like the heavily stylised register used elsewhere.

It's clear enough what it's meant to do for the story: to present the idea that the kind of performative self-loathing we see so much of in professional comedians is the mask for a much deeper, crueler, more vicious hatred of everyone around them, and that the kind of man who makes a big show of saying "I'm a really bad dude" should probably be treated like he means it. The film's most effective and brutal trick is that we spend most of its 141 minutes locked into Henry's brain, and it's a horrible, savage place to be; Annette gives us no outlet as we watch him reveal the depths of sheer destructive hostility he feels towards the world. This is ugly, visibly therapy for Carax, who dedicates the film to his own daughter and has basically left no doubt that the film is his confession that he thinks he's ruining her life; the combination of this raw emotional bleakness with the metronymic rhythms of Sparks' music creates a harsh, but also exciting irony, that's further complicated by the dreamy unreality of the film's visuals, filled up with rich shadows by cinematographer Caroline Champetier and color coded with a blunt motif of greens for Henry and reds for Ann. It's almost like a parody of classical musicals, color intensified and stripped of any nuance until it just represents the force of two psychologies bashing at each other with very potent and naked love (literally: one of the clear highlights of the film's first half is a sweaty sex scene as the two leads repeat the endless chant "We love each other so much" without missing a beat, even in the middle of cunnilingus), which makes the darkness of the story all the more tragic.

But as I was saying, all of the film's strengths, in the first hour, largely come when it is most abstract; when it tries to position itself within the real world of L.A. celebrities and stand-up and opera, it falls flat. I concede that merely reducing - not even removing - the endless first comedy routine would probably make me feel much more positive about the whole thing, since that swift-moving chronicle vibe works awfully well, and the biggest problem with the stand-up is that it grinds the movie to a halt so that Carax and the Maels can make uninteresting points about how much they dislike stand-up, without actually demonstrating what they dislike about it.

Because once the film starts cooking, it's great: without saying what happens in the second half, I can confidently assert that the film begins to focus on one tone that suits it very well, one basically set in the real world, but which depicts that real world as a series of blatantly artificial spaces. The portrayal of Annette grows increasingly surreal in the best ways, and Driver's performance goes from simply hammering at whatever each scene asks of him to creating a laser-focused descent into the heart of a man who doesn't know how to stop hurting himself and others, so he just doubles down on it. This all ends in an absolute masterpiece of a final scene, that made me feel like I'd been hit with a truck two different times in five minutes; for all the film's archness, its last beats are painfully real and earnest, as emotionally direct and honest as any recent piece of cinema I can name. It's all very tough and confounding, and speaking as someone who immediately clicked with Pola X, Carax's most openly ugly and difficult film, I completely understand why this got such a befuddled response even from his fanbase when it premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. But even when it's maddening, it's the purest kind of cinema, the kind that beams itself directly into your guts. It's not the best film of 2021, but I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be the most essential.

*That being said, after watching The Sparks Brothers, I spent two full weeks listening to basically nothing other than Sparks, so clearly Wright's argument worked on me, even if I'm not terribly impressed by his sophistication or ingenuity  in mounting it.