The eccentric and experimental style of Leos Carax was an interesting choice to open this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But it also made sense. His out-of-competition film “Annette” had already screened for some critics which generated a healthy amount of buzz. In addition to a small but vocal following, the movie also brought two with it big international stars, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Toss in the film’s uniquely offbeat European flavor and Cannes suddenly sounds like the perfect place to open.
Carax’s last film was the audacious but maddening “Holy Motors”, a movie that still defies definition (though many have tried and made compelling cases for it). “Annette” is somewhat similar. You could call it a dark avant-garde musical fantasy. You could also call it a 140-minute study of self-loathing and self-destruction. You might even be able to stretch it into a searing deconstruction of celebrity relationships. Whatever you want to call it, Carax teams with the equally unconventional Sparks brothers to create something as polarizing as it is creative; something equally enchanting and perplexing.
Co-written by Carax and the Sparks siblings (aka Russell and Ron Mael), “Annette” has a strange Hollywood allure while still very much feeling like an art house oddity. This interesting but not always co-equal synergy is encapsulated best in the movie’s opening – a catchy musical number featuring Carax, the Maels and the film’s cast. The song “So May We Start?” begins in a recording studio before spilling out into the LA night. Through one long continuous take, the group saunters along for a couple of city blocks, singing the bars with a casual and carefree spirit. That’s about as playful and lighthearted as “Annette” gets.
From there the movie slides into the peculiar rhythms of its narrative. This strangely structured collage of sequences and lyrics tells the story (with varying degrees of success) of Henry and Ann. Played with an elegant touch by Cotillard, Ann is an opera singer with a beautiful soprano voice that fills seats and captivates audiences. While Carax’s representation of opera isn’t the most flattering, he portrays Ann as genuinely talented; a rising star who is beloved by the public and the obsessed press.
Contrast that with Driver’s miserable and insecure Henry. He’s a comedian (although not a very good one) with his own stage show that taps him as “The Ape of God”. His act sees him moping around in a green bath robe and house slippers engaging the audience with his nihilistic musings and gloomy self-analysis. When we first meet Henry his show is a moderate success. But while Ann’s career is blooming, his is slowly withering. Her shows are steadily selling out while his are being cancelled.
Ann and Henry’s relationship exists from the outset and we’re given practically nothing about what brought the two together. In Henry’s routine bouts with self-doubt, he’s constantly asking himself (in song) “what does she see in me?” It’s a good question, not because there is something glaringly undesirable about Henry. But because we know little to nothing about their history together. Even more, we never really get to hear or feel much from Ann’s perspective. One of the biggest frustrations with the film is that Ann is often a blank slate. We know she loves Henry but we don’t know why. We know something drew her to him but we don’t know what. In many ways she just exists as a piece of Henry’s story. Cotillard is terrific, but her character begs for more depth.
The two eventually marry and have a daughter, a creepy wooden marionette they name Annette. But as Henry’s career crumbles, he finds himself succumbing to jealousy, arrogance and self-pity. Soon the character is careening down some dark and unpredictable paths which Carax emphasizes both narratively and visually. And it all unfolds through a little speech but mostly singing. Not through what you would consider full songs (with a few exceptions). More so lines of dialogue sung instead of spoken. And too often the tunes are nothing more that one line repeated over and over again. I mean you can only hear “We love each other so much” so much.
Where Cotillard’s approach is delicate and graceful, Driver fearlessly attacks the material, swallowing up every scene with his physicality and intensity. His lone struggle is his singing. It only took one scene in “Marriage Story” to show the world he could sing. But here he struggles at times to get in tune with the Mael brothers’ weird musical arrangements which leads to moments that distract more than they immerse. But those aren’t Driver’s fault and as a whole his performance is astounding. The always welcomed Simon Helberg pops up playing a self-deprecating accompanist, but it’s deep into the movie before he’s given anything to do.
The last act of the film vacillates between something magical and utter absurdity as Annette’s role broadens. It does end with a powerful final exchange that I won’t dare spoil, but that ends things on a strong foot. It’s the kind of finish the movie desperately needed and a kind of scene the movie could use more of. As it stands “Annette” is a mixed bag with too much artistry to dismiss and too many flaws to overlook. Adam Driver is a force and while it’s hard to say he “saves” the movie, he certainly keeps it afloat. The film’s musical component is far less impressive. Other than the opening ditty you’ll be hard-pressed to find another song that will stick with you, much less one you’ll want to listen to over and over again. Perhaps the filmmakers aren’t interested in selling soundtracks, but when the music is so central to the film’s language, you tend to expect something a little more memorable. “Annette” opens in select theaters August 6th before streaming on Amazon Prime August 20th.