There's Always A Shipwreck I Guess
Aka: Som-Mai you're not allowed to read this one yet because it's full of Annette spoilers
originally published sept. 4th, 2021
There’s one image that stuck with me at around the midpoint of Leos Carax’s recent Annette, a bonkers-magoo little musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and featuring a story and music by the band Sparks, where Driver’s Henry McHenry and his baby daughter Annette (a puppet, naturally) are splayed out on a beach at night with the moon overhead, looking out at the dark sea. They are on the beach after their yacht got caught in a storm, where Ann Desfranoux, Henry’s wife and Annette’s mother, falls overboard and drowns, at least in part due to Henry’s drunkenness and recklessness. They are then shipwrecked on the beach, leading to this image of looking up at the moon as the storm clears.
The scene clearly takes place on a soundstage, with no attempt to hide the artificiality and construction of its creation. It looks like, in fact, a scene from a theatrical play; the angle of the camera even being plausible for a close-up seat.
And because I’m a lunatic who spent four years in a college Shakespeare company, seen 25 productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and (at least count in my spreadsheet (because of course I have a spreadsheet) seen, read, or been in 30/38 Shakespeare plays, the image immediately brought to mind The Tempest. And so a letterboxd goof was born.
The only people who would ever read this are probably already familiar, but just in case, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s later plays (if not the last he ever wrote solo!) and believed to have been written circa 1610-1611. It follows Prospero, a duke who was overthrown in a coup by his brother Antonio and, with his infant daughter Miranda, was left to die out at sea. They then happened to land on a mystical island where Prospero learned the powers of magic and became a powerful sorcerer. And twelve years later, a ship carrying Antonio and several members of the royal coterie passes the island, and Prospero creates a storm to shipwreck them and begin a plot of magical revenge on those that harmed him.
The shipwreck is actually the beginning of the play; all the events twelve years before happen offstage, and are told in monologues and discussions that reveal the history of this intertwined group of characters. So in some ways, the fact that this image made me think “Tempest” immediately makes sense: a man and his infant daughter stranded on a remote beach after a shipwreck, and done in a theatrical style that would fit in perfectly with a stage production. But that scene doesn’t actually happen in the play; it’s prologue, something the audience has to imagine. The shipwreck we do see is that of Antonio and his court. So, almost, but not quite.
The Shakespearean "late romance" is a weird subgenre. Typically speaking, at least since the First Folio in 1623, Shakespeare’s plays have been categorized as either a comedy, a tragedy, or a history. While no two plays are identical, the comedies generally are lighter hearted with a focus on jokes, and tend to end happily for the main characters, usually involving a marriage and either punishment (or repentance!) or the villain. The tragedies tend to be darker, feature more flawed protagonists, and usually end in death of the central characters if not basically everyone (lol at the bloodbath Fortinbras walks in on at the end of Hamlet.)
The histories more often than not are similar to the tragedies in tone and content, but their distinguishing feature, at least in the First Folio, is they are about actual Kings of England.
Even there the clean tripartite genre split kinda falls apart (Happy vs Sad vs Sad, but about England) but things get totally weird in the last few plays of Shakespeare’s career.
Taking The Tempest, for example, for most of its runtime it hews closer to the dark and dangerous style of a tragedy than that of a comedy. While there is humor, particularly in the antics of Stephano and Trinculo (the servant and jester of Alonso, himself one of Antonio’s co-conspirators who’s shipwrecked in Prospero’s storm) and Caliban (a native of the island and Prospero’s servant-and/or-slave depending on how post-colonial your take on the play is.) But this comedy, structurally, behaves much more like the comic subplots of The Fool in King Lear or The Porter in in Macbeth than being infused throughout the play like your Twelfth Nights/Much Ados/Midsummers.
And yet, the latter half of the play concerns itself with a charming pastoral romance between Miranda and Ferdinand (the son of Alonso.) And the play ends happily, with Miranda and Ferdinand married, Prospero and Antonio reconciled and the coup undone, Prospero deciding to forgo magic and free his servants on the island, and everyone getting to go home. Arguably one of the most uncomplicatedly good endings in the whole canon!
In the First Folio, The Tempest is considered a comedy, and if you squint and pay more attention to the ending than anything else, I guess it works. And if The Tempest were alone as the odd duck of the 38 plays, then I guess we just give it an asterisk and move on with our lives. But there are other plays from this same era in Shakespeare’s career that not only also defy easy categorization, but defy them in similar ways: The Winter’s Tale, (listed as a comedy), Cymbeline (listed as a tragedy), and Pericles (not listed in the First Folio, but generally lumped in with the comedies.)
All four of these blend comedy and tragedy, and specifically blend a tragic central plot with a happy ending (I believe Stephen Orgel, one of my Shakespeare professors, called The Winter’s Tale something along the lines of “what would happen if Othello magically had a happy ending” (literally, in fact))
These plays, being that they don’t fit the existing three genres and all are misfits in the same way, have since been grouped together (along with The Two Noble Kinsmen, apparently, but I’ve never seen or read it so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) as the “late romances”
Jumping back, I never actually said: I fucking loved Annette. It’s a deeply weird and certainly polarizing movie, featuring as its leads: a central character who vacillates between pathetic and vile, a female lead who is arguably underwritten and killed off halfway through, and a baby puppet.
It’s a movie that always teeters on a knife's edge of whether you’re supposed to take it seriously or not, and whenever you come down on one side or another, in the next moment it almost seems to laugh at you for making the wrong choice.
It’s a musical where the songs are so on the nose that the main theme, sung as Henry and Ann are falling in love with each other, is literally the words “We love each other so much” (and where one part of the falling in love montage is them singing it in a brief pause while Henry is eating out Ann.)
And again, the titular Annette is a puppet!!!!
I mention all the above because I think it’s all cool and I love it, but I can very easily see your mileage varying.
A lot of people have described Annette as modern opera as a way to shorthand what you should expect going into it and the lens some would argue you should view it through so you aren’t judging it against works and conventions it’s not really trying to be. And I think that’s fair and correct, specifically the idea that both Annette and opera involve larger-than-life stories featuring somewhat stock characters (or, maybe more accurately, characters who are more valuable as engines for emotion and drama than for nuanced/realistic psychological portraits), usually underscored with emotive but on-the-nose songs.
But really, I think Annette is a Shakespearean late romance.
The late romances have a lot of interesting similarities in terms of their preoccupations.
All four centrally feature the complicated and often fraught relationship between a father and his daughter (Prospero and Miranda for The Tempest, Leontes and Perdita for The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and Imogen for Cymbeline, and Pericles and Marina for Pericles.) The daughter is generally an ingenue, sweet, innocent, crafty, and fundamentally good, and is estranged from her father by circumstance, often of the father’s own making. On that, the father is usually flawed, driven by an overarching desire that at times gets the better of him and threatens to destroy both him and his relationship with those closest to him (Leontes’ jealousy, Prospero’s revenge, and to a lesser extent Pericles’ grief/Cymbeline’s pride.)
The father is also usually powerful, royal, but on or near a downswing (Leontes is a king who causes the death of his wife and son and banishment of his daughter, Prospero is a duke who was exiled and turned magician on an abandoned island, Pericles is a prince on the run, and Cymbeline is a king at risk of being destroyed by the invading Romans.) And there is a strong belief in the innate inherited royalty and goodness passing through the bloodline (all four feature daughters and sons of rulers either pretending to be commoners or not knowing they’re secretly royal, and yet still being able to catch the eye of someone equivalently royal through their inherent specialness.)
They generally feature an interplay between the world of society and “court”, vs the world of nature, with court typically being a dangerous and treacherous space, while nature is mysterious but rewarding. Usually the father is aligned with court, and court is the central locus of the tragic plot of the play, and the daughter is aligned with nature which provides the redemption and happy ending that tie the play together at the end.
They all tend to feature magic and unexplainable phenomenon, either happening to the characters or embodied by the characters or elements of the natural world.
And all but Cymbeline feature a shipwreck!!!!!!!!!!
To that end, Annette, a movie about:
a powerful celebrity father
whose fatal flaws of drunkness and jealousy
leads to the death of his wife, the murder of his friend, the destruction of his career, and the exploitation of...
his ingenue daughter
with magical singing abilities
that she inherited from her uniquely talented mother
and where a measure of redemption comes for him at the end through reconciliation with said magical daughter after confessing to his crimes
(and after she magically turns from being a puppet into a real human girl)
definitely uhhhhhhhhhhhhh shares some threads with the late romance?
It even features, though to a lesser extent than the the four plays in the subgenre, an element of court vs. nature; there's image near the end of the film where Henry and Ann’s elegant Los Angeles house with its concrete pool is overrun with weeds and ivy, an image immediately before the final confrontation/reconciliation scene between Henry and the soon-to-be-human Annette.
And, as mentioned before, motherfucking shipwreck!!!!! That’s the central turning point of the movie, placed similarly to where it is in The Winter’s Tale/Pericles!!!!!!!
So that’s all cool, the idea of it sharing similar preoccupations, images, and stylistic flourishes to this weird set of four late-period Shakespeare plays. But I think there’s a little more than that.
Let me also take a step back and say: I fucking love the late romances. The Winter’s Tale, in particular, is one of my top five favorite Shakespeare plays of all time (the list being 1: Macbeth, 2: Much Ado About Nothing, 3: Twelfth Night, 4: As You Like It, 5: The Winter’s Tale.)
Like The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale blends tragedy and comedy, but does it in an even starker way. Winter’s begins in Sicily with the king Leontes irrationally believing his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, the visiting king of Bohemia. Leontes’ paranoia makes him want to kill Hermione, Polixenes, and his infant daughter Perdita who he believes is the child of this affair, and so Polixenes escapes, Perdita is banished, and Hermione dies of a broken heart, leaving Leontes alone, miserable, and seeing the error of his ways only too late. These first acts in Sicily are dour, brutal, and near-indistinguishable from the style and tone of a Shakespearean tragedy.
The second half, via a monologue from the literal personification of Time (!!!!!!! cool!!!!!!!) transports us into the future and into Bohemia, where we are treated to a light pastoral comedy centered on Perdita (having been raised as a shepherd’s daughter after being rescued from the shipwreck after her banishment) and Florizel, the disguised son of Polixenes. The two fall in love and shenanigans ensue as they try to woo each other while Polixenes meddles, believing his son is falling for some lowly shepherdess. In a same-but-different contrast to the first half, this second chunk is pretty indistinguishable from the lovely pastoral romance of an As-You-Like-It-style comedy.
And then in the last act, the two blend, with Perdita and Florizel fleeing to Sicily to escape Polixenes’ disapproval and get married, and in seeing the young love, discovering Perdita is his long-lost daughter, and reconciling with Polixenes, Leontes’ old sad heart is warmed just in time for a STATUE OF HERMIONE TO MAGICALLY COME BACK TO LIFE. It’s an absolutely gorgeous, weird, marvelous ending and I love this goddamn play so much.
And taking Winter’s as one example that balloons out to the subgenre as a whole, I love that the late romances are complicated. I love that they defy the comedy/tragedy duopoly, and defy it in a way more interesting than “Well they’re about England, is the thing” like the histories do.
I also love that they’re romantic, in both the lower-and-capital-R sense of the word (in that it’s usually literal romance, usually of the young lovers who span whatever conflict the older main characters are sparring over, that turns what would be a tragedy into a happy ending and reconciliation, and that these are plays that focus on nature, mysticism, the supernatural, and the power of things greater than rationality, society, and man-made power; usually there is some element of surrender to the natural and the weird that pulls the play off its tragic path to the happy ending.)
And I love that they’re a little inscrutable. Both in the genre sense, as mentioned at length above, but also in the complexity of their protagonists (Leontes and Prospero both being men full of darkness, jealousy, paranoia, and poor decisions, who still manage to find redemption at the end) and in the weirdness of the language and the circumstances (there is literally a speech of Leontes’ where no modern scholar is able to parse what he’s supposed to mean, which rules.)
Annette as Shakespearean late romance comes from a lot of the tangible details mentioned earlier, as well as some elements mentioned above in the The Winter's Tale and the rest of the romances. Particularly, the way the movie plays with the supernatural, particularly centered around Annette as a character (both in that she can magically sing with her dead mother's voice, and that, again, she's a puppet) places in a much weirder world than the typical modern musical, more in line with mysteries and leaps of faiths you find in this era of Shakespeare. And again, if these are plays full of weird stuff and weird language, uhhhhhhh yeah that's Annette baybee!!!!
But I also think a fair bit, and the part that really clicks for me, comes from those main characters. A lot of the criticism of Annette centers on the bizarre stylistic choices and the previously-mentioned difficulty in parsing the larger-than-life tone, and again that I think can be somewhat blunted by thinking of it in the context of opera (though also true of the late romance.) But a fair amount of critique also centers on the questions of how we’re supposed to feel about the central relationship and the character of Henry. Is he supposed to be a vile misogynist drunk who kills his wife and abuses his child? And if so, is he deserving of what seems like a redemption and forgiveness he gets at the end from Annette?
I don’t want to full-on Substack up this Tinyletter and go off too much on the bluntingly moralizing way some seem to prefer their art consumption, particularly on twitter dot com (because I think this does it better) but I think this is another area where the late romance example is instructive, at least in terms of better clarifying what I like about Annette.
I mentioned earlier that my letterboxd goof was that Annette is my favorite adaptation of The Tempest, and while a goof, if does get at something that has historically frustrated me about the versions of the The Tempest I’ve seen. Prospero is the protagonist and central character of the play, and it’s very easy to read his actions in the play as just, and to take the lens focusing on him as the wronged party. Which is fair, because he is! His brother usurped him and left him and his infant daughter to die! That fucking sucks!
But Prospero, in his desire for revenge and his tendency towards control and manipulation, also engineers a shipwreck for not just the people who wronged him, but also their innocent companions, then arguably tortures them with horrifying apparitions, and to top it off in parallel manipulates his own daughter into a love plot. And I half-joked about it before, but genuinely Prospero’s treatment of Ariel and especially Caliban is pretty easy to read as despicable, especially through a modern and post-colonial lens.
And I feel like this isn’t just the case of reading darkness into a play or applying 2021 morality onto 1610 characters; the play itself, as part of its happy ending, ends with Prospero realizing that he needs to abandon his magic, in a way that always reads to me as him acknowledging its danger as a corrupting force to him, if not acknowledging that he’s fundamentally unworthy of its power.
I have only seen a couple performances of The Tempest, and one was marred by the Prospero mostly just being boring and bad, but none have ever to my mind really grappled with this darkness inherent in Prospero. And so Annette is, to some degree, a The Tempest that actually is wiling to go there with its Prospero analog in Henry. Henry in fact does what Prospero only threatens, in actually murdering at least one person and being party to (and potentially legally responsible for) the death of another.
Henry actually has more in common with Leontes, in that it’s his raging jealousy that directly contributes to the death of his wife and destruction of his family. And like Leontes, after these vile acts that stem from his fatal flaws, he seems to be doomed to a life of misery and loneliness. A tragic but perhaps fair ending, if you’re of the “Art is a mirror” persuasion.
But then, for both Leontes and Henry, two things happen. First, they acknowledge their fault and accept responsibility (Leontes does it willingly after the death of Hermione, Henry needs some…. Lets just say “encouragement” in the form of Baby Annette’s first words being to rat him out on live television and get him sent to prison after being airdropped into a football stadium via drone (lol this movie!) But he gets there eventually by the final prison meeting scene.)
And confession would be good, necessary I think, but not sufficient to pull Leontes and Henry out of the darkness and into redemption. For that, in both cases, the redemption comes from their daughters: from Perdita and Annette. In Leontes’ case, it’s his acceptance and discovery of Perdita, and her reconciliation with him, that softens him out of his decade-long self-exile, which not only allows their surviving family to become one again, but literally brings Hermione back to life.
Annette is nowhere near as happy an ending, though Annette’s transformation from puppet to human girl, I’m now realizing as I’m writing, doesn’t *not* rhyme with Hermione’s statue coming to life. But through Henry being able to see Annette as a real girl, and her being able to express the feelings she’s had for him and the terrible things he’s done to their family, and through her being able to forgive him, it does seem that Henry is able to find some measure of redemption and inner peace that mere confession wouldn’t grant. Unlike The Winter’s Tale, this does not end in the family unit reuniting or the mother coming back to life, and its implied that Annette in forgiving is also breaking free of Henry and Ann’s clutches on her and will presumably not be returning for a good long time.
But like with Leontes, Henry gets what redemption he does both because he is willing to accept his own responsibility, and because he’s able to have an honest (if honestly severed!) relationship with his daughter who he’s harmed.
And I think that’s neat! Cue “Lock & Key” by Sara Watkins!!!