A stand-up comedian and his opera-singer wife have a daughter with a surprising gift
Leos Carax’s sixth feature (his first in English) is enormously self-indulgent but also compelling, ridiculous, and emotionally powerful. It’s a musical, but don’t expect big hummable tunes; it’s a drama, but don’t expect to get inside most of the characters because they’re subsumed in the production’s idiosyncrasies; and it’s also, perhaps, a horror musical… but abandon all thought of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
It’s also, most definitely, a film to be seen at the cinema because its excessiveness demands a big screen. That didn’t stop walk-outs at its Cannes Festival premiere, however, and it remains a divisive film that most will either love or hate.
Lavish, wildly over-produced, and verging on the absurd though it is, Annette tells quite a simple story. Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) is a modestly successful stand-up comedian engaged and soon married to the more celebrated opera singer Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard). They have a daughter (played by Devyn McDowell when a bit older), and potential trouble lurking in the sideline in the form of an ambitious accompanist (Simon Helberg) who’s not yet realised his ambitions and who carries a torch for Ann.
Although their love’s real and intense at first, a gap between Ann and Henry develops and widens as his career falters and hers thrives. A trip together, intended to mend bridges, goes disastrously wrong and Henry’s left trying to bring up their baby (Annette, or “little Ann”) on his own. She’s the Annette of the title and while the film appears to be superficially about Henry—as he’s better-developed than Ann, and most other characters seem to exist largely in terms of their relationship to him—Annette’s the most remarkable thing about the movie, not least because as a baby she’s played by a puppet. A puppet with huge ears and a resemblance to a 1960s Troll toy, which makes it hard to take much of the film seriously.
And yet she’s a remarkable focus; a baby who seems to somehow channel the singing ability of her mother and invites the manipulative schemes of her father. So even if nothing about Annette, or Annette, is remotely credible in a literal sense, it becomes so in an emotional one. Indeed, while reading too precise a metaphor into this deeply eccentric movie is a mistake, as it’s easy to wonder if Annette actually exists at all, or if she’s a figment of Henry’s imagination, or a ghost (“I will haunt you, Henry” is sung at one point). Certainly, the mistakes he made with Ann are pretty much repeated with Annette (you could think of the film as Fatherhood Story, a darker complement to Driver’s Marriage Story, though one could also see it as a soured version of the male lead’s life from A Star is Born).
Annette is self-conscious and mannered from the beginning, where a long voiceover about the sacredness of performance (“breathing will not be tolerated”) is directly addressed to the audience, followed by a song entitled “May We Start”. Meta doesn’t begin to cover it, and the lightness of the music by the group Sparks (Ron and Russell Mael) with its broadly Sondheimesque idiom, is often mismatched with the seriousness of events and feelings. At the same time, there’s often little scope for the actors to do much, partly because most of the roles are inherently underwritten, and also because they’re overwhelmed by almost continuous singing and visuals.
Still, there are musical moments of real power—notably the Ann-Henry duet “We Love Each Other So Much”—and even if Cotillard’s often upstaged by the sheer elaborateness of the production, Driver comes through as a real person whose unhappiness is clear. It’s difficult to understand what drives him, except perhaps self-destructiveness (“I must never cast my eyes towards the abyss”), but his stand-up scenes—more than any others—do provide some insight. There’s a terrific episode where he recounts killing his wife, acting out every step to a discomfited Las Vegas audience. He hasn’t murdered her, but at one point in his act he claimed he became a comedian to tell the truth, and even if he’s spinning a tall tale there may be some deeper veracity in what he says.
Perhaps more effective is his final meeting with the older Annette toward the end, when most of the high-concept frills have been stripped away and we’re finally left with two people genuinely encountering one another. “You can’t smoke here and you can’t kill people,” Annette says, adding “daddy, it’s sad but it’s true, now you have nothing to love”. We see a ‘QUIET’ sign above him on the wall, its admonition contrasting with the busy recording studio of the film’s opening, and we realise that finally this man who was all about speaking is finished. “Stop watching me,” he says.
Driver, then, is a believable if somewhat one-sided character, while Helberg (who incidentally also played an accompanist in Florence Foster Jenkins) grows in importance as the film progresses and delivers a persuasive performance. McDowell, meanwhile, grabs attention as Annette, once the puppet version’s been retired. But although Driver just about manages it, it’s difficult for any of them to compete with the production’s music, gorgeous colours, and visual affectations. For example, the screen splitting briefly into six parts when six women level #MeToo accusations at Henry, or the moments where realistic photography is abandoned for superimposition or sheer fantasy, such as Annette flying out of someone’s screen.
Taking the film as a whole, the gist is clear: Annette is the tragedy of Henry McHenry, driven to destroy the things he loves. As Carax has said, “sometimes a person is his or her worst enemy”. What it means in the details is sometimes less obvious—if the thanks to Sondheim and Tom Lehrer in the closing credits are pretty self-explanatory, those to the early film director King Vidor and a misspelled Edgar Allan Poe remain obscure. (There are some faint resemblances to Vidor’s 1928 movies Show People and The Crowd.)
Whether that matters in the slightest is, though, another question. Annette is a film with absolutely no misgivings about its own artificiality, as fake through and through as the implausible stone shore on which Henry is shipwrecked at one point. Perhaps a few more strangenesses make no difference, though it’s certainly arguable that Carax over-relies on artificiality for the sake of effect—as if being unusual was an end in itself. The use of the puppet as young Annette is a prime example, inevitably drawing attention to its own unrealism, while never making it clear whether that unrealism is meaningful to the drama or an incidental conceit.
Annette is also a downbeat musical, a combination that may deter both fans of downbeat movies and fans of musical theatre. Peter Debruge put it nicely in Variety, writing “it’s not for everyone, as there’s little demand for 140-minute bummer musicals at the moment.” Still, if you’re willing to accept all this and go along for the ride, it’s a striking and memorable film that does eventually achieve some real impact, and certainly not a movie that’s likely to be upstaged by any other this year.
FRANCE • BELGIUM • GERMANY• USA • JAPAN • MEXICO • SWITZERLAND | 2021 | 141 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Leos Carax.
writers: Ron Mael & Russell Mael.
starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard & Simon Helberg.