Leos Carax’s nearly sung-through Annette is very different from your average movie musical. It’s a strange and unusual tale of one man’s downfall, led by a very strong performance by Adam Driver.
Annette is a Strange, but Enthralling Movie Musical and a Great Vehicle for Adam Driver
Annette marks French director Carax’s English-language debut, though it’s perhaps no more accessible to American audiences than a foreign film. The film premiered at Cannes film festival earlier this year and will surely turn off many audiences with its roller coaster of a plot and dark, unlikable main character — not to mention its artistic but odd tone and editing.
But for those who are willing to go along for the ride, it’s a feast for all the senses from the energetic music to the lavish production design. (The yacht is one of the most theatrical and exciting set pieces I’ve seen in a long time.)
The screenplay, original story, music, and lyrics were written by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of the Sparks band. A documentary about the duo called The Sparks Brothers came out earlier this year if you’d like to know more about them and their music.
Annette opens with Carax and the Mael brothers themselves, beginning the song, “So May We Start.” It’s a sort of breaking of the fourth wall as the actors, not yet in character, walk through the streets of Los Angeles and eventually put on costume pieces before heading off to their ‘places’ for the beginning of the film. It’s very theatrical, a characteristic that applies to the film as a whole.
Henry McHenry, played by the Driver, is at the center of the film despite it being called Annette. He’s a stand-up comedian who delivers a rather aggressive set dressed only in a green bathrobe. In an early scene, he commands the audience to laugh, which they happily comply with. They then question why he became a comedian, which he dodges answering for a while before finally admitting that he wanted to disarm people.
That seems to be the aim of the film as well. It’s a much darker film than I’d anticipated and it’s unclear if there’s any actual message beyond some commentary on the relationship between a comic and their audience, the way we perceive opera, celebrity culture, and toxic masculinity.
Henry is in a relationship with the beautiful opera singer Ann, played by Marion Cotillard. She plays soprano roles, dying over and over again onstage, aided by her accompanist, played by Simon Helberg. Helberg gives an incredibly emotive performance, particularly in the second half of the film and might even be the best in show.
Ann isn’t as well-developed as a character as Henry is, bending to his overwhelming presence even in the movie’s structure. However, Cotillard and Driver have fantastic chemistry together.
We’re also treated to celebrity gossip reports that give us updates on the couple and help move the timeline along. This is one of the more inventive and effective devices that the film uses, particularly as it gives us insight into how the public views them including when Henry’s career begins to sour after their marriage.
Henry and Ann have a baby, which they name Annette, who quickly becomes both a pawn and a driving force for both of them. The childbirth scene, with the song “She’s Out of This World!” reflecting Lamaze breathing patterns, is remarkable.
You may have already seen online that Annette is portrayed by a series of puppets, from a newborn baby to a toddler. (Insert joke here about it looking much more realistic than the American Sniper baby despite its very theatrical design.) It’s amazing that the film is able to make us care so much about a puppet child, perhaps more than we care about any other character. An innocent caught up in her parents’ turbulent relationship, she metaphorically becomes a puppet for her father’s wishes, reflecting her literal form.
Part of why the puppet technique works so well is that both Driver and Cotillard are able to give fantastic performances opposite the puppet child, helping us to believe in its reality. As Henry and Ann’s relationship hits the rocks, between women coming forward with allegations against him and his anger issues growing worse, baby Annette helps to ground us to the couple.
The songs often blend together due to the film’s sung-through nature, though “Stepping Back in Time” stands out as the best. It definitely showcases Driver’s vocals better than the other songs where he occasionally sounds like he’s straining himself. Catherine Trottman provides additional vocals for Cotillard, particularly in opera scenes, and both women sound great.
The songs themselves are very repetitive and very stylistically different than you would expect to hear in a movie musical. In one song, Driver repeats, “I’m not that drunk” over and over like a mantra. It’s questionable if the album would be good listening outside of the context of the film, but the songs definitely work well while watching.
Driver has a tendency to play complicated, morally grey characters, although Henry is arguably much less morally grey than Marriage Story’s Charlie for example. He’s incredibly chaotic and hard to like, but he’s enthralling nonetheless. It’s a very physical performance from Driver, with him jumping around the stage during his comedy performances.
Driver transforms over the course of the film, not just in his shortening hair length, but from a man who is toxic to someone who is truly falling apart. Annette is a roller coaster and, despite its long runtime, never boring. It’s the sort of film that many mainstream audience members will struggle to connect with, but for those who are open to something a bit strange, it’s well worth seeing for the performances alone.
Annette is in select theaters and will stream on Amazon Prime on August 20, 2021.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.