Every time you think you’ve got Annette figured out, the romance movie takes a left turn. The rock opera directed by Leos Carax is as inscrutable as they come, a whirlwind celebrity love story full of ego and massive choruses that’s just a bit overlong, despite the bangers.
Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard are the lovers at the centre, he a comedian named Henry McHenry, she the accomplished opera singer Ann Defrasnoux. Fueled by passion and impulse, they declare their engagement soon after getting together, but struggle to keep the spark alive while sharing the limelight.
Not to infer this is a two-sided parable, quite the opposite: it’s Henry’s story, with all the arrogance, resentment, and self-righteousness therein. Carax’s film has an adoration for the lone performer, and the personal sacrifices needed to hold down a creative career, but a scorn, too, for those that become consumed by their own self-image. It’s a pastiche, loving and scathing at the same time, that’s more likely to win your respect than actually have you singing its praises.
The opening scenes are a prime example: a fourth-wall breaking opening number introduces the main characters, before we transition to one of Henry’s shows. He’s an edgy comedian dubbed “The Ape of God” who performs in a green bathrobe, fuelled by bananas and cigarettes, telling meandering jokes that sound clever and philosophical but don’t hold up to any recollection.
The camera sits quietly but attentively in the audience for Henry’s show, but cuts right onto the stage for Ann’s shows across town. A foreshadowing of the emotional gulf they’d fail to cross. After their respective shows, Henry rides his motorbike over to Ann, who’s surrounded by paparazzi. They share an embrace, moving into an intensely erotic duet.
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Annette is constantly shifting, tonally, cinematographically, and emotionally. One second Henry and Ann are belting out a shared chorus, the next we’re watching him lay in bed sleeplessly from the corner of the room. Some scenes, the camera is orbiting its subject, engaged in some furtive performance, others we’re static on Henry’s helmet as he rides deadpan down a long, unending highway.
Beguiling, yes, but also dense. The music is composed by Sparks – brothers Ron and Russell Mael – who also co-wrote the script with Carax, and the soundtrack slides between styles almost on a whim. Occasional scenes appear to breakaway from the plot entirely, such as a whimsical number from Ann where the stage around her becomes an entire forest, the environment morphing to match her own performative headspace. Most dialogue is sung, which, paired with the occasional dreamlike motif, pushes Annette into opaque territory.
When Henry and Ann’s lovechild is born, and revealed to be played by a wooden puppet, the reaction is part creeped out, part “Ah yes, of course”. Annette is full of surprises, but isn’t couched in shock. Driver and Cotillard play a huge part in this, being familiar faces on all the deliberate arthouse sensibilities. They’re like recognisable rockstars fronting an avante-garde jam band whose very presence allows you to understand why sudden jazz breaks are cool.
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A rift emerges soon after the baby. Henry’s shows are waning in popularity, and he becomes confrontational toward the live audience, and his family at home. Entitled oafishness is something Driver’s rather good at, considering his turns as Kylo Ren in Star Wars, and the unfaithful Charlie Barber in A Marriage Story. Unfettered by the added musicality, he commits as if he’s auditioning to be Roger Daltrey’s backup in Ken Russell’s Tommy.
Faux news reports signpost transitions, and it isn’t until Henry and Ann decide to a trip on a yacht might fix their ailing marriage that the comedic value becomes clear. Annette straddles a similar line of satire and sincerity to Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hollywood send-up, Hail Caesar!, except driven by synth-driven artrock over Rodgers and Hammerstein dance routines. There’s a clear love for the great creative ingenuity that goes on, and an underlying disdain for the culture that surrounds it.
Suffice to say, being stuck at sea only makes Henry and Ann’s situation worse, and the real darkness of Annette starts to take over. There are many points in this story that pivot on Henry’s ability to practice some candor or self-awareness, but he never learns. Everyone around him suffers for it, and we can only watch as he forces his child to before a popstar, and lashes out in jealousy at an old friend of Ann’s (Simon Helberg).
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Beneath it all, Annette believes in sincerity. Helberg’s character, simply credited as ‘The Accompanist’, monologues over a recital as conductor in a single take, with the camera rotating mere inches from his face, similar to the way we’d been floating around Ann on stage. He gets emotional explaining their friendship, and how hurtful he finds Henry’s behaviour, pouring that energy back into the orchestral piece. He and Ann weren’t in the arts to have their egos stroked, as opposed to Henry, who viewed spoken word as the only way he could “tell the truth without getting killed”.
Henry’s fans eventually see through that, and eventually so does the rest of the world. By the time that happens, Annette loses some of its bluster. In a fortuitous coincidence, Sparks, a documentary about the band directed by Edgar Wright, came out earlier this year. It’s a worthwhile preamble to Annette’s relentless oddities, examining the musical siblings’ decades-long, medium-encompassing odyssey.
“What are Sparks?” Wright asks the brothers. “We are a band,” replies Ron Mael. “Are you a real band?” Wright says back. “Next question,” is the response. Annette is a real movie. Is it a good one? Next question.
Annette is in UK cinemas September 3. This screening was part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival – you can find out more about the event here.