If you watched Edgar Wright's rock-doc The Sparks Brother from earlier this year, then chances are you will go in to Annette rooting for the film. I know I did, loving the eccentric and eclectic records that brothers Ron and Russell Mael have released since the early 70s. A rock opera is in their wheelhouse. I am also a fan of director Leos Carax whose Holy Motors is one of the most thrilling films of the 2000s. One would think this combination would create something striking and unique. Annette is both of those things while also highlighting the worst of this mashup of auteurs.
The film's opening 10 minutes or so are pure cinematic bliss as Sparks, the cast and crew all sing an opening number about getting the film started. It is a wonderful fourth wall break that should set a tone for what follows. Over the course of the remaining 130 minutes however, I grew increasingly frustrated with Annette. A good part of this stems from the film's tone. Like a Sparks album, it can be tough to determine when things are sincere and when they are mocking. Often it seems like segments in the film want to be both. This creates an artifice to everything in the film, keeping the audience from emotionally engaging with the story.
Mariane Cotillard and Adam Driver play lovers Ann, a opera singer of great fame, and Henry, a stand-up comic known for his unique, sour approach to comedy. After the joyous opening number "So May We Start", the film focuses on an extended performance of Henry's stand-up. He dons a green bathrobe and reflects on his own cynicism. The routine is anti-comedy and the way Carax stages it, one can't tell if this is a criticism on the art of comedy or just a way to show what a prick Henry is.
The media describes the couple as "Beauty and the Bastard," a fitting title given how angelic Ann is and how awful Henry is. Driver and Cotillard struggle to have chemistry together that reaches the madness needed for the film's pitch. We never quite buy that Ann is so madly in love with Henry that she would put up with his crap. Even a musical number while Henry performs cunnilingus on her doesn't sell their passion for each other.
The couple has a baby, Annettee, who is a marionette aided by CGI at times. It is an unsettling creation, meant to show us how Henry views his child. It is effective in creating some unintentional horror moments but fails to work when we are asked to care about Annette later in the film. As Henry spirals into self-loathing, he commits some horrible acts. I never was sure if the film wanted me to care about Henry's soul given how awful of a person he is.
The Maels have a reputation for mischief so it is a bit offputting how dour Annette is. The songs are often very repetitive and rarely get to explode with energy like the best Sparks songs do. That isn't to say that a few musical numbers don't succeed. Simon Helberg has a particularly strong number as the accompaniest turned conductor who loves Ann from afar.
The real issue here is Carax's direction. While the film is often full of strong visuals, it can't lock down a tone to engage the audience. Carax has a way of visualizing dreams that can be quite striking. The issue here is that the whole film feels like a dream, removed from real emotions. I could never tell what the film was aiming for; satire, humor, tragedy, or surrealism.
Cotillard and Driver are both giving passionate performances here. However, the aim of their performances is unclear. Bleak but whimsical, Annette is a curious film. I loved the opening moments of it but the remainder had me wanting to walk away from the film.