It’s not really my thing to write film reviews, in spite of how much I enjoy the provocation of thoughts by movies, particularly the (relatively) low-budget independent ones. However, when it comes to Leos Carax’s Annette, it’s clear that it is the kind that would draw heavy criticism from those attached to classical cinema, and so I felt the need to give it some credit. After surviving a confusing first hour, I couldn’t then help but start interpreting the movie as an ideological critique, particularly of love, which is where I believe the depth of the story rises to the surface. Of course, spoilers ahead.


The Comedian’s Curse


I’ll place my focus on the father, Henry (well-played by Adam Driver), simply because I couldn’t not sympathise with him as one in a series of anti-heroes recently inhabiting our screens. Throughout the movie, the question that keeps coming up: ‘is Henry actually capable of loving?’. A dissonance steadily grows throughout the story, with which he gradually terminates all the things that bind him to humanity in what seems to be an act of self-destruction. While the latter interpretation may be accepted from a clinical standpoint, I will try and show that from a more sociological perspective, Henry can be diagnosed as the symptom itself, a result of the social, political – ideological – demands.


His being a comedian by profession, is no coincidence in the plot: comedians occupy a place (and a privilege) in society which not many other social roles can. Most of the time we try and cover and ignore the contradictions and injustices that make up our society, and whenever we encounter someone who calls our bluff and dares us to admit this (even if they try to use reason) we immediately shun them for not living in the real world, being too radical, creating awkward dynamics in the rituals that produce social situations, and so on.


In acts of self-preservation, we shun those who point at the elephant in the room. Unless it is a comedian. And the reason why, is because the comedian appears apolitical, humble, one of us, a voice that echoes what we’re all thinking but articulating it as comedy.


The comedian occupies the role of absolution, almost like a confession, except that he does the confession for us. We trust him and allow him to criticise us and ridicule our social rituals, under the condition that it remains for fun, that he does not take himself seriously. The satirical comedian is thus meant to give us the catharsis from our tense social expectations, by holding off the ultimate blow – that is, the blow that would shatter reality and create a political event – in himself.


It is for this reason that, when asked by the audience why he became a comedian, Henry replies “to disarm you”. At this point it becomes clear that he has a distaste for much of the social order, his own audience, while knowing that in his social role he cannot point it out explicitly, otherwise they would kill him. Of course, this eventually happens upon his passage à l’acte, his irruptive ‘mental’ breakdown, in which he does turn fully against the audience (i.e. society) in one of his shows, resulting in the end of his career.


The foreshadowing of this breaking down is made by Henry who, in a Nietzschean style, first warns his audience not to look the abyss in the eye, which act would mark the start of the collapse of all meaning. We soon start realising that he had done this himself, resulting in his capitulating under the immense weight of the existential angst it brought him.


Institutionalised Love


As Henry grows more despicable along the story, we start confirming that he cannot love and that he is not deserving of love. However, if something was wrong with him, it wasn’t that he lacked the faculty of loving, but rather that he could not participate in the institution of love which still holds a strong position in our society, particularly in its romantic forms.


The first time the power couple appears in public, his first reaction is to hide his identity behind the helmet, to protect their love from the gaze of society. Naturally, this privacy could not hold out for too long. Soon after the public proclamation of their love, we witness the scene where the couple are singing their own love song, declaring that “we love each other so much”.


At this point, I seriously wished to know what went through the mind of the audience in the theatre upon hearing this song. Did they perceive it as a moment of pure love, perhaps a perfect instance before something goes wrong? My immediate reaction was ‘Cringe Alert!’. And actually, or so I believe, this is precisely what is going through Henry’s mind even at that point, and why his love for his wife Ann started to collapse; their love started to take a socio-ideological shape, a necessary existence within the social symbolic order, which his cynical nature could not bare staring at.


In our society, this institutionalisation of love is omnipresent in its ideological obligations to implant rituals upon our relationships: we must give a gift on Christmas, birthdays, Valentine’s to the point that we get scared when the dates approach; we must say ‘Love you!’ each time we say goodbye, to the point that the phrase loses all feeling; we must co-attend social events as two persons in one symbolic body, to the point that we start forcing our loved one not to go somewhere or do something, or we’ll have to join them.


These are actions that do not come naturally among lovers but rather arise through social demands, and translate as follows: ‘To feel that our love is recognised, we must perform this and that social rituals. So, if you truly love me, you’ll prove it by following them for me.’ In other words, love becomes a performative demand, and the relationship becomes political, in the same manner that princes and duchesses would have gotten married in the olden days.


Undead Love


Given the critical political element that inhabits love once it is institutionalised, there can be no wonder as to why so many dead relationships can stay ‘alive’ purely in the performed rituals. From inside the ideology, a person such as Henry is easily seen as the heartless guy who is too ill or self-centred to return his wife’s love. But while Ann was content to conduct her routine extramarital affair in secret and then go back to the social, singing about how much in love she is and pretending that nothing’s wrong, he chooses not to partake in the charade.


Henry’s brutally-honest mind would not allow him to live in the realm of rituals, but his lack of moral direction, and perhaps a missing sense of self-worth, sunk him to alcoholism and debauchery. In other words, Henry is a reflection of Rick Sanchez in Rick and Morty: too smart to participate in social stupidity but still mortal enough to have no real alternative since no human being can exist outside society and language. Hence, the only recourse is to become a malignant symptom within the ideological structure of that same society, which then either metastasises in some social revolution or apoptosises in the individual’s implosion.


For Henry, it certainly was the latter. His desperate desire to run away from social ideological demands, to rekindle ‘pure love’, is demonstrated in the scene in which the couple and their child sail away to the solitude of the open waters. But the result was, of course, that there can be no such thing as a love that exists in itself, and whatever emotion kindles our desire for intimacy and recognition is necessarily articulated in the values that surround us.


Henry tries to force a rekindling by performing a social ritual away from society, which force leads to his killing his wife in an act of desperation and drunken stupidity. In this self-immolating act of killing his loved one, Henry’s chronic self-hate thus becomes apparent: even when loved, he could not appreciate it or feel loved by the other, simply because he could not accept the gaze by which she valued him. Any value seen in him by others existed only in terms of signifiers that those people adopted in their ideological vision of reality.


Therefore, Henry could never feel that he is loved as Henry-himself, for that person cannot exist. His ultimate hope would be to be loved by his infant daughter, upon whom, of course ironically, he starts to impose rituals of filial love towards him (which instigated his covertly murdering Annette’s biological father). The final blow takes place, when the exceptionally wise young Annette refuses those rituals and declares her choice to cut loose from the cords restraining her as a marionette, that is, all that ties her to him, her toxically hysteric father.


The fantasy of unmediated love


So is Henry capable of loving? My conclusion is that Henry was emotionally functional, perhaps too functional, as a highly perceptive observer of other people’s sentiments. His chronic dysfunction was rather socio-ideological: he could not go through with his emotions, simply because the only realm they could be experienced was in the social conventions which he could not pretend to believe in, unlike the more pragmatic functional citizens such as his wife.


The tragic story of the film Annette thus presents us with a harsh reality: As much as intrinsic emotional needs such as intimacy are a vital aspect of our general well-being, they also remain loci occupied by ideological demands, a seat of biopolitics, meaning that we become dependent on rituals to enjoy such emotions. No wonder love exists more in our fantasies than in everyday life.


The hero who stares into the abyss is neither badass nor a fashion statement. Most times, the (anti-)hero fails and falls into the depressive depths that Annette’s Henry discovers. Nevertheless, the rare metastases of rejected rituals that spread in society, are what always leave hope that ethical change can take place in politics.



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