For his first film in nine years, supremely idiosyncratic French director Leos Carax has shifted languages to English, brought aboard bona fide Hollywood star Adam Driver, and landed a distribution deal from, of all places, Amazon. Thankfully, though, you can dispel any worries you may have had that Annette would be any less mad or original than Carax’s previous output. It may look more mainstream than, say, Holy Motors on the surface, but once you dig into its world, you find a film that is, for better and occasionally worse, truly unlike anything you could see in this or any other year.
Carax’s first musical, Annette is more sung than spoken as it follows the romance between controversial stand-up comedian/performance artist Henry McHenry (Driver) and opera star Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), a romance that spawns the miraculous child Annette who, by the age of two, becomes one of the world’s most celebrated singers. It’s a story that frequently plays more by opera rules than typical cinematic ones, exposition and character insights given directly to the audience in song, all catchy tunes and very little subtlety.
This theatrical feeling extends past just the plotting and seeps into almost every aspect of Annette, from Carax’s use of back projection to carry out epic set-pieces to the in-universe performances of Henry and Ann and the fact that Annette herself is a wooden puppet, not relying on a child actor. It makes for a visually fascinating piece, Carax conjuring striking imagery, often on a colossal scale that very few directors have the guts or ambition to reach for.
Between the show-stopping moments, though, the first half of Annette can feel a bit over-extended. It’s hard to warm to, or often even care about, Henry and Ann as a couple despite magnetic performances from both Driver and Cotillard – just as he did with Denis Lavant’s agility in Holy Motors, Carax here makes masterful use of Driver’s sheer physical heft. Henry is, in no uncertain terms, a despicable, misogynist shithead and his act – part Bo Burnham, part Andy Kaufman – doesn’t convince as funny enough for him to be the beloved celebrity he is, while Ann isn’t given enough of an inner life to be a particularly moving heroine.
The songs are all great in this opening hour – composed by the hugely influential pop duo Sparks, who also wrote the script – but it’s not until the later stages of the film that Annette fully realises its potential. Perhaps the most important shift is the moving of the limelight off of Henry and Ann and onto Annette and Ann’s lovelorn, unnamed, Accompanist (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory fame). Helberg is a revelation, both musically and in terms of his acting chops, and all but steals the show in a whirling dervish of a scene in which he conducts his band through a veil of tears, whilst the puppet Annette works better than you could possibly have hoped.
Her songs grab you by the throat and heart, gripping and moving in equal measure, culminating in a heartrending and emotionally rich final number that manages to balance the fantastical silliness of the whole endeavour with a deeply felt and believable study of the chaotic wisdom of children and the unseen scars adults leave them with. It’s a remarkable way to close out the film, and, given that Annette ends with a dedication to Carax’s own daughter, a touching insight into the mind of a filmmaker clearly wrestling with questions of his own parental inadequacy.
By design, Annette is a singular, divisive film with no interest in mass appeal. It is relentlessly weird and laced with a profound darkness, while Carax keeps the fourth wall very porous in a way that can be distractingly meta, and we haven’t even talked about the sweaty sing-along sex scenes. It’s frustrating, annoying, and even, just sometimes, boring, but it also has the diamond-rare capacity to inspire genuine awe.