Leos Carax, one of the world's weirdest filmmakers, has out-weirded himself with Annette, his new film that's a hash of interesting ideas that don't begin to fit together. It’s a film that reaches for the stars, but only gets about halfway there.
Annette is the first English-language film by the French director Carax, and his first feature since the fantastic Holy Motors, in 2012. It's also a full-on musical featuring both a screenplay and songs by Ron Mael and Russell Mael, the duo behind the band Sparks, and also the subject of the recent documentary The Sparks Brothers. A Cannes debut, Annette hits theaters August 6, and Amazon Prime two weeks later.
The film stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a famous showbiz couple—he's a stand-up comedian (named Henry McHenry) with an act that veers towards avant-garde performance art, while she's a top-notch opera singer. They appear at first to be a happy couple, as demonstrated by sex scenes, musical numbers, and one scene that's both at the same time. The moment in which Driver looks up from cunnilingus to sing an original song—apparently a movie first—was all anyone who saw the film at Cannes could talk about.
We later discover that things are darker, as both lovers have strange hallucinations that portend doom, whether in the form of death or a cascade of #MeToo allegations. This coincides with the birth of the couple's baby daughter, the Annette of the title. The baby is portrayed by a truly odd-looking puppet, a fact that's unremarked upon by everyone else in the movie. Annette takes some very big swings, and a few of them actually connect.
It's a gorgeous motion picture. Carax and cinematographer Caroline Champetier do some great work showcasing Los Angeles—as the plot recalls multiple famous Hollywood deaths, most notably that of Natalie Wood—while both lead performers give strong turns. They both sing passably, although we've heard Driver croon before, in both Inside Llewyn Davis and Marriage Story.
Also, if you're under the impression that stand-up comedians, especially "edgy" and "provocative" ones, tend to turn out to be pieces of shit who hurt those around them, this film will not disabuse you of that notion. I expected Driver, at various points, to defend himself from awful behavior by declaring "But I'm a comedian!"
On the other hand, Annette is yet another movie about a tortured artist being an asshole to those around him, and doesn't add to the established canon of that sort of story. I'm not sure if Driver's character, from what we see of him, being a strikingly untalented comedian adds more poignancy, or less. He's also one of the movie characters who's impressively jacked, even though he's never seen working out and appears to be an alcoholic.
Beyond that, too much of what happens in Annette is nonsensical, and there's no overarching through line that makes all the weirdness worth it. Take the baby, for example. That plot ends on a fine punchline, but overall there's not much payoff for decision to make the baby a puppet, beyond weirdness for weirdness' sake. Also, the film doesn't have anything to say about marriage, family, or parenthood, and its attempts at parodying celebrity and tabloid culture mostly fall flat.
The other big issue is that the songs, for the most part, aren't very good. The opening number is outstanding, but mostly the tunes are repetitive and tiresome, leaning heavily on the characters just explaining what they're doing at that particular moment. It's hard to imagine any of the songs ever making sense outside the context of the film.