From the first moments of the ambitious, sometimes stubbornly weird, sometimes magical film Annette, from director Leos Carax and writer/composers Ron and Russell Mael, known together as Sparks, you already know you’re in for something different and original. Carax talks directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, then the entire cast and crew get together and walk through the night streets singing ‘So May We Start?’.
If you know the filmmakers, you know to expect the ambitious and the unexpected. Carax (best known for 1991’s instant French classic, The Lovers on the Bridge) has a singular, imaginative aesthetic that can always be depended upon to transcend genre and create a stir. The vastly under appreciated Mael brothers have been releasing groundbreaking music for over 50 years, blending the sensibilities of rock opera, art rock, and electronica with lyrics referencing Shakespeare or acerbic relationship insights, and often both in the same song. These two forces collide with stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard who come ready to do their best work in a musical story that, whether you love it or hate it, will stay with you for a very long time.
This film is, at a guess, 95% singing, not only by Driver and Cotillard (with Catherine Trottmann dubbed in as her operatic singing voice) but co-star Simon Helberg and pretty much any audience or crowd with which they interact. It’s about fluffy, shallow subjects like the interior vs. the exterior, fantasy vs. reality, the destructive force of fame, the damage done to artists in the limelight by outside perception and their own inner demons, and the transitory nature of life and love.
Stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), dubbed The Ape of God (a medieval reference to the devil), struts and shuffles across the stage using belligerence and anti-social musings for shock-laughs in his sold out multi-media performances. Ann (Marion Cotillard) is a world-famous opera singer who dies onstage every night. The two have embarked on a passionate love affair, to the fascination of their audiences, and by extension, the paparazzi. It’s clear the two are headed for disaster, first because it’s a film by a French man, and secondly because Henry carries with him a dark presence from the very beginning, even in his most loving moments with Ann. Another clue to the relationship’s downward trajectory is the repeated visual reference to Snow White in Ann’s scenes alone. Is his love for her a poisoned apple? We have no idea of why or how it goes south, but it does, even as Ann gives birth to their child Annette. This is no ordinary baby, and whether you can accept her as she is presented will determine if you stick with the movie or walk out, just like some audience members at Cannes. Baby or no, the movie is too long, but It’s worth sticking with it just to see the spectacular job Adam Driver does in the last half hour.
Driver’s McHenry is terrifying. No wonder they don’t live happily ever after. Would it kill the cinematic powers that be to have a story where two complicated people still grow old together happy and die as old lovers? No. Even Pixar can’t seem to give us that.
So is this a f*cked up A Star is Born, or ‘Pinocchio in Hollywood’? For sure it’s David Lynch meets Tim Burton, with intentionally obtuse dialogue, subjective lighting, scenes straddling both the look of a soundstage and the natural environment, and the juxtaposition of the performers against surreal backdrops. Special congrats to cinematographer Caroline Champetier for handling some extremely long shots and production designer Florian Sanson for creating some unforgettable visual tableaus. Both worked with Carax on his last film, Holy Motors. Should Adam Driver be nominated for an Oscar? Yes. Would I want to watch it again? Not without antidepressants. Will I get the soundtrack and play the songs on repeat? Definitely. I don’t even mind the fact that “So May We Start’ has been stuck in my head on repeat for 12 hours.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars.