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.
It’s a bold act of confidence (or perhaps cockiness) to slyly break the fourth wall and tell your audience that any reaction from laughter to tears (all the way to farting) must be done inside one’s head and that they are to take a deep breath and hold it for the entirety of the experience. In context of Annette as a film, that involves edgy standup comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and rising opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard) marching through the Los Angeles streets to play their respective shows. Blurring the lines between reality and cinema, Russell and Ron Mael of The Sparks Brothers are present alongside their synthetic rock band, who not only have written the songs for this unorthodox musical (they aren’t so much songs as they are choruses and refrains functioning as the centerpiece to various dialogue exchanges) but have conceived the whole unapologetically bizarre narrative for Leos Carax to direct with his equally unconventional approach to off-the-wall storytelling.
Much like the Sparks’ music, there’s a chance most people reading this are also unfamiliar with Leos Carax’s filmmaking body (something that should be corrected by watching the bonkers Holy Motors while asking why it took seven years for his subsequent work of genius to come to fruition), which endearingly makes the pairing a match made in pure craziness. If you are so inclined, Edgar Wright recently released a documentary on the band as both a personal project and likely something to get viewers ready for what to expect. At least, in a musical sense, that is. I don’t think it’s possible to prepare anyone for the plot developments and trajectory of Annette.
Henry’s offensive comedy show goes off fine, seemingly able to have the audience laugh on command (it’s also worth noting that none of the jokes are problematic enough to make someone regret purchase a ticket). Meanwhile, Ann has audiences emotionally in the palm of her hand as she performs and dies night in and night out. For the first hour, both characters look for an answer to what satisfaction performing brings, with Henry tackling the question head-on during one of his shows. Elsewhere, Ann sings a song suggesting that she has concerns over how well she knows her husband (there’s also a hilarious dream sequence of Henry getting MeToo’d in the form of a song).
With both talents on the rise (also nauseatingly covered with disrespect and for clicks by tabloid journalists), Henry and Ann decide to have a baby that they go on to name the titular Annette (complete with singing during the birthing process, which is not even the strangest place singing occurs). In the middle of that, Ann continues to rise to superstardom, whereas Henry’s audiences become more rejecting and confrontational. It also doesn’t help that one of his bits details a cruel foreshadowing tale; it’s one of those moments where if someone expresses something ugly about who they are, it’s probably best to label a spade a spade.
From there, it would be a shame to spill where Annette heads next, partly because it’s best left unspoiled but primarily since it gets so zany and odd in ways that need to be seen to be believed. I’m also not sure mentioning things that happen here will even do the story justice. It sounds entirely ridiculous and stupid on paper yet is riveting and, with purpose in its execution, surprisingly easy to take seriously and be moved. What can be said is that there are both physical and supernatural twists to the daughter that further complicates the fracturing relationship (the story also heavily focuses on Henry’s cracked ego from fading into obscurity and disdain while Ann sells out every show she accepts). There is also a third wheel here known as The Conductor (Simon Helberg) leading the orchestra for Ann’s stage performances, unable to overcome that Henry stole her heart first.
Annette routinely criticizes paparazzi behavior, celebrity culture, and comments on the current state of art, but there are also several personal struggles for the family to tackle, all with spellbinding performances from Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. For as much as there is to admire in the originality of the narrative from Ron and Russell Mael, it’s also clear that they sought out the right director for the job in Leos Carax, who soaks most scenes in moody lighting, majestic backgrounds, and a dashing of magical realism implying that all bets are off in terms of predictions (I lost count of how many times I simply couldn’t believe where the story ended up in terms of characterization and location). However, there are multiple layers and underlying poignance to the insanity, with multiple visually and emotionally stunning sequences. Not to mention, there’s an adjustment to a character and a song reprisal during a captivating climax ending things on a profoundly entertaining note.
Similar to how people are increasingly stumbling across The Sparks Brothers music, finding rich value, the same will occur for anyone that chooses to get lost in the musical masterwork that is Leos Carax’s Annette. It turns out holding one’s breath for 140 minutes is easy when the absurdity is this sustained and brilliant and dramatically arresting.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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