Directed by Leos Carax.
Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell, Angèle, Rebecca Dyson-Smith, Ron Mael, and Russell Mael.
A stand-up comedian and his opera singer wife have a 2-year-old daughter with a surprising gift.
In a stacked year for cinematic musicals, there’s no denying that Leos Carax’s delirious new film Annette stands distinct from the rest. The director’s first feature since 2012’s unforgettable Holy Motors teams him with A-lister leads and, in a most inspired move, Ron Mael and Russell Mael of legendary pop outfit Sparks, serving as both songwriters and co-scriptwriters.
But I’ll get something out of the way immediately; Carax’s latest is no Holy Motors. Lacking that film’s mesmerising, extreme formal control, Annette is a far looser, messier work albeit no less beguiling. Though certainly more accessible to general audiences as a piece of pure narrative, this 140-minute surreal musical is likely to alienate even many who love the genre.
Unsurprisingly, Annette is the furthest thing from a traditional musical project like West Side Story or Les Misérables, though at the same time it still feels oddly thickly-laid for a Carax-penned stab at the genre, as ultimately becomes more than a little wearisome over such an expansive runtime.
Carax and the Mael’s story follows the romance between controversy-courting stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and beloved soprano Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), whose union eventually results in the birth of their beloved daughter Annette, represented here not by a human actress but a wooden marionette puppet.
As weird as that sounds, and as bizarre a film as this generally is, it’s baffling just how surface-level the Maels’ songwriting is throughout, hyper-literalising everything we’re seeing on screen to the point that it almost smacks of self-parody. There are undeniable show-stopping high-points, like the opening “So May We Start” number and a hypnotic call-and-response sing-song between Henry and his audience, as they rhythmically ask him, “Why did you become a comedian?”
There’s also the romantic “We Love Each Other So Much,” which features the already-infamous beat where Henry surfaces during a bout of cunnilingus to sing, but this much-discussed moment is really an outlier in a movie which swings more for infectiously shallow than ambitiously boundary-pushing where its musical content is concerned.
On one hand the thorough daftness of the songs ensures the film lacks the self-serious portent so often associated with “worthy” musicals, but if you don’t count musicals among your favourite film genres, even Carax’s left-field presentation won’t necessarily persuade you.
Credit mostly goes to the cast, particularly a remarkably game Adam Driver, who in addition to being a dead ringer for a younger Ron Mael is whole-heartedly committed to Carax’s vision. He is, admittedly, more convincing as the shock-jock comedian than as a naturally gifted singer, and Carax is smart to give Driver a lengthy portion of the movie to conduct a stand-up comedy routine, captured in lengthy unbroken takes.
Cotillard, though undeniably accepting the slighter and lesser of the two parts, does a fantastic job with her own opera-style singing, even if her character’s marked underdevelopment compared to Driver’s may frustrate some. Supporting the duo is Simon Helberg as a phenomenally talented yet underappreciated accompanist who ends up playing an important role later in the story; Helberg does a lot with a small-but-significant part.
Thematically, Annette isn’t always a million miles away from Holy Motors; it’s also interested in the transformative nature of performance and the relationship between player, part, and audience, as well as the cult of celebrity. One subplot touches briefly on the tidal impact of the #MeToo movement, using its musical form as a unique delivery system compared to the many literal-minded dramas on the subject.
However, the film’s critique of the media circus and price of fame has its sure limitations, never delving deep enough to feel truly fresh, unaided by an overabundance of periodic, horrendously cheap-looking TMZ-style gossip interstitials on Henry and Ann’s life which don’t quite acquit themselves on satirical merit.
The riskier conceit which mostly pays off is the appointment of a puppet stand-in for the titular daughter character. The disembodied creepiness of the physical prop speaks for itself, though the absurdity of watching insanely famous actors performing opposite a marionette and even puppeteering it themselves at the same time is a singular joy belonging only to Carax’s film.
The thematic utility of embodying Annette this way will become apparent to most anyone watching, and despite the obvious potential for it to become a weird-for-the-sake-of-weird flourish, it somehow isn’t, believe it or not.
Though running a few minutes shorter than the year’s other mammoth-length musical In the Heights, Annette asks far more of its audience and its runtime generally feels more gruellingly indulgent. Would any of the impact of Carax’s film have been blunted were it a half-hour shorter? I’m not convinced, but its unapologetically epic, sweeping canvas will evidently win it and its daring filmmaker a cavalcade of defenders.
While I didn’t come to love Carax’s latest, I certainly admire its technical craft and outre approach to so many aspects of the typical movie musical. A wilfully acquired taste, Annette is a film perhaps easier to respect than it is to whole-heartedly love, even for fans of all involved.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.