When it was announced that there would be a new original movie musical directed by Leos Carax and written by Sparks, a duo of brothers who have been innovating and challenging pop music since the 1960s, the only expectation we could reasonably have was not knowing quite what to expect. And whatever Annette’s failings, it certainly delivers in that respect. A darkly bombastic, theatrical spectacle, Annette pushes against the constraints of traditional musical theater, creating something that is alternately pared-down and over-the-top. It is always interesting, even when it struggles to separate the music from the noise. With strong, intense leading performances from Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, Annette is intriguingly bizarre in a way that is likely to lose (conservatively) three-quarters of the audience while keeping the remaining quarter in utter thrall.
Although Henry (Driver) and Ann (Cotillard) are both world-famous performers, their similarities end there. Henry McHenry is a stand-up comedian who has built his career around shock and outrage and is as brusque and patently unlikeable off stage as he is on. Ann Desfranoux is an ethereal opera singer, a soprano who is kind, vulnerable, and adored by everyone she meets. And yet, incredible, they fall in love. They get married and have a daughter, Annette, whose unique abilities will one day draw the entire world’s attention. And things get considerably more complicated from there.
Like many creatively ambitious film projects, Annette has some choices that are far less effective than others. Carax frontloads his film with two extended stand-up sequences that are, frankly, insufferable, which is a mistake. Driver puts everything he has into this performance, but there’s a self-consciousness to these moments that makes them difficult to connect to. They come across as aimless, unsure of exactly what their purpose is in the narrative (aside from driving home the point that Henry is awful, something that could have been established with far greater economy, or making a bewildering statement about the nature of comedy and comedians.) And perhaps worst of all, they read as self-indulgent, a risky thing when you’re asking the audience to take as much on faith as Annette does.
But all of that said, other parts of Annette are magnificent: strange and wonderful in their overt theatricality. Annette is at its best when it leans into pageantry and gorgeous visuals: the sequences aboard the couple’s yacht in the midst of a storm are breathtaking, as are all the scenes where the puppet Annette is on full display. It’s these magical images that exist in a sort of heightened reality where Annette can really shine.
Adam Driver is a commanding presence throughout, someone you desperately want to be more than just the disappointing, often disturbing person he continually shows himself as. He is cold, calculating, brooding. Although he seems to genuinely care for this little family that he has created, the endless reserves of insecurity and rage that exist deep within him are enough to quash whatever warm feelings he may have for Ann and Annette. By contrast, Marion Cotillard as Ann is effervescent. Her loving temperament is expressed through the pure, clear notes of her vocal performance, and its beauty is such that it’s difficult to imagine it not being enough to bring even the most lost soul back into the light.
Equally worthy of note, but likely in danger of going underappreciated, is Simon Helberg as Ann’s love-stricken former accompanist, who reluctantly works with Henry to bring Annette’s gift to the world. He comes in late to the proceedings but has an enormous impact, and his musical numbers are gorgeously understated yet emotionally rich. What a lovely surprise to see him so well used here, after years playing fourth fiddle on The Big Bang Theory, and what a promising start to his post-sitcom career.
Annette is unquestionably challenging. If you’re open to its various charms and flaws, that will only add to the appeal, creating an intellectual and sensory experience that you’ll be thinking about for days afterward. But the buy-in may be too high for many viewers, and they will likely see it as little more than a mess. Still, Annette has an undeniable impact, even if only for its sheer novelty, and within its at times chaotic ramblings, there’s plenty to like. And at the very least, it is gratifying to see this type of blatantly eccentric, polarizing arthouse film being made at all in an era of corporate filmmaking domination. Within an industry falling all over itself to be popular, Annette is willing to risk being misunderstood or disliked to tell the story it wants to tell. In that way, it is a culmination of Sparks’ long career: a creatively satisfying if the imperfect quest for artistic fulfillment.