It’s no wonder the Cannes audience was left somewhat baffled by Leos Carax’s beautifully weird, stilted, melodramatic rock opera Annette. The film swings wildly from Carax’s avant garde tendencies to the esoteric stylings of Sparks, the suddenly hip-again band who not only did the music but developed this nightmarish twist on A Star is Born. For all of its grand operatic sweep and oversized performances by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, the film is more puzzling than entertaining.
For one thing, it’s hard to tell whether we’re meant to take it seriously or not. The film repeatedly winks knowingly at us at moments meant to carry the most intense emotional weight. And yet the themes are quite heavy within this odd flight of fancy. The perils of fame, marriage, parenthood, passion, and jealousy don’t so much as bubble beneath the surface as explode out like a raging volcano.
At its core, Annette is quite simple. Henry (Driver) is a shock stand-up comedian whose routing consists of him complaining on stage, while calling himself the “ape of God.” Anne (Cotillard) is a world-renowned soprano and a real class act, completely out of the league of someone like Henry. This mismatched union has made them paparazzi stars, which comes with its own added pressures. Any disparity between their successes is publicized and heightened, creating tension. Add to the mix their newborn child, Annette, who…well, she’s played by a puppet for most of the movie.
Never you mind, because there’s weirdness abound and your mileage will vary on it. The film actually gets off to a promising and energetic start with the zippy “So May We Start?”, with the cast, crew, plus Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks performing through the streets of Los Angeles. The film then settles into a perilous, histrionic slog peppered with bits of weirdness that is meant to be cute but is more annoying than anything else. McHenry and Anne have zero in common or anything to talk about, but the oft-repeated song “We Love Each Other So Much”, itself devoid of meaningful lyrics, will have to suffice. Why, they love this song so much that McHenry comes up for air to sing it while going down on Anne, his head buried between her legs. TMZ-style news segments telegraph the turbulent phases of their relationship. When an angry storm brews in the sky and the waters stir fearsomely, we know something bad is about to happen. Annette is both painfully literal and tonally all over the map.
And yet, at times you can’t help but be transfixed. Carax all but dedicates the film to his daughter, whose mother (a deep inspiration on Carax’s work) died years earlier. The spectre of grief hangs over Annette the same way it hung over Holy Motors, but within you can also sense the worry of a famous parent for the well-being of their child. Carax traps his characters in a surreal landscape as seductive as it is deadly, echoes of the fame that can make or destroy them. Driver, his wild hair blowing in an ill wind, is often framed to maximize his imposing physical stature. His form can be comforting, offering safety as he does so often for Anne and later Annette. But turned another way, it can be terrifying, like a demon emerging from the shadows. Henry rages against his adoring fans and it’s a scary thing even they recognize as their laughter grows uncomfortable. This is definitely Driver’s movie, but that’s not a knock on Cotillard who is luminous to the point of angelic. That is definitely by Carax’s design, as she and Driver are coming from two different place, drawing emotion from very different reservoirs.
In a key moment, Anne and Henry talk about their respective shows. He says he “killed” his audience, a slang term comedians often use, while she says she “saved” hers. Ironically, Anne’s character dies in every one of her shows. But in the middle of this wide gap that exists between Henry and Anne is also where Annette finds itself; just a strange, dark bauble to be briefly examined and then discarded.
Annette hits Amazon Prime Video on August 6th.