Directed by Leos Carax
Written by Ron Mael, Russell Mael, and Leos Carax
Annette is a musical that begins in the dark (actually, it begins with three dozen logos—it's in English, but it's European, so it has an unbearably long list of production companies and represents the queasy prospect of taxpayer funds being redirected from the public welfare to a rich man's confessional art*—but we're supposed to ignore these), and in the dark a voice enjoins us to hold our laughter, applause, and bodily functions, including our breath, till the end of the show. This is the kind of overconfident gesture that's pretty much doomed to backfire, though it at least promises a kind of, well, breathless, annihilating emotional experience. In fairness, I think this is what director Leos Carax was going for, and probably did experience for himself, since this movie about fathers and daughters is dedicated to his real-life daughter, tracks his own suffering with uncomfortable fidelity even if the names have been changed, and, as I mentioned, is a musical, which are almost always concerned with undisguised emotion. I mean, they say if a feeling's too big to talk about it, you should sing about it, and if it's too big too sing about it, you should dance, and I suppose that's the basic idea here. Except Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard can't sing or dance. So there's another problem already.
It's also a movie that, as much as it is about elemental feeling, is also about the parasitic relationship between celebrity and a faceless public, and how the latter soaks up the pain of the former for their benefit and then destroys them when they've got nothing left to give, edging up pretty close to the notion that they need women, specifically, to die as martyrs while offering up a man to be the villain. I'm not sure it's really worth delving into the politics of something that invokes "Hutus and Tutsis" as an up-to-the-minute reflection of the world's ills (if I had to guess, it's just how Carax feels about himself), but to get at this it also posits that the public judges and jeers celebrity without knowing the human underneath, so the whole first half of the film (at least) is structured with that unbridgeable gap in mind, with the whirlwind romance between edgelord comedian Henry McHenry (Driver) and opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard) presented as a sort of long compilation with the same sensationalism and absence of human detail that would attend, say, a series of tabloid write-ups. And indeed the film's narrative is built around precisely that, a series of little news bytes on a fictional celebrity gossip channel, which is satire but also a story necessity, since this approach frequently winds up with the actual narrative rendered slightly too abstract for its own good
These two approaches to the material stay at war with one another throughout, and they resolve only slightly even in the better, second hour (I'm tempted to say they only really resolve, in favor of "breathless emotional experience," in the film's very final pre-credits scene), and it makes for a movie that struck me as bafflingly arid of actual feeling even when it was bludgeoning me with the simulation of feeling via its constant musical numbers. And that's definitely problem three: the thing is sung-through, and I sometimes think there's not a form in all art more prone to being completely unmanageable than the sung-fucking-through musical.
Anyway, it also begins with a playfully meta number, "So May We Start," featuring the cast and its songwriters, Ron and Russel Mael aka Sparks, as themselves, that I would doubtless like better if I liked the movie more, though in context it comes off as a statement of self-importance. (In this 142 minute movie, that also has an equally-meta coda, it's hard not to think of it as disagreeable indulgence, though Carax has the decency to put both his bookenders under the opening and closing credits, respectively; so maybe it's just that you can have an introductory line of narration exhorting you to "hold your laughter, your breath, and your farts" or you can have "So May We Start," but you can't have both of them, since telling the audience that shit's getting real immediately, only for the audience to discover that the movie doesn't even have its pants on yet, is something of a self-cancelling move.) Now we finally get the first in-story scene, introducing us to Henry as a "comedian" in the sense that he's an avant-garde performance artist who saunters out on stage in a bathrobe and, in lieu of jokes, gives short, wry, self-loathing updates on how his life's going. It's obviously a category error to expect literalism here, but it's so disconnected from anything resembling the real world that it doesn't permit either its satire or characters to quite cohere.
Nevertheless, this establishes that Henry has lately gotten engaged to Ann, which is apparently a big deal (one of the ways in which Annette strongly desyncs itself from any extrinsic reality is its assertion that anybody gives a shit about opera singers, and even implies there would be some inherent scandal to a bad-boy comedian dating one, rather than generating an indifferent "huh"). Henry doesn't understand her attraction, and the film contrasts how he goes on stage to "kill them, destroy them," etc., while Ann's art requires her to die night after night, and oh Lordy. She gets pregnant and eventually they have a baby, Annette, and in what is definitely the film's strangest play (and was probably calculated to be its salient talking point) this baby is played by a puppet, which, as it grows into a toddler, begins to resemble a Gelfling. Nobody reacts to this, of course, and the closest we get is that even a nasty jerk like Henry probably wouldn't hold a real baby who had organs as carelessly as Driver does this puppet. (This is both funny and probably the most effective characterization of Henry in the film.) This brings us about one-third of the way through the movie, whereas, slightly after that, an event occurs that refocuses the story more upon Henry's relationship with Annette. This is better, as Annette acquires some dark fairy tale energy in the process, and Driver is styled to look less and less like a ribald comedian who's much taller and works out a lot more than most comedians, and more like an evil stage hypnotist from the 1930s.
It's still not great, just more propulsive, but it does beat the aimless, impressionistic first half, that, devoid of interstitial material or much plot, just settles into a series of Sparks music videos on the subject of a new marriage between a man kidding on the square about "the abyss" and a woman who grows to fear him for unclear reasons, the closest we get to understanding these reasons being when Annette deigns to comment upon (or "acknowledging the existence of") sexism in the arts by way of a dreadful, content-free, #metoo-inflected dream sequence. (A lot of Annette is content-free, and remarkably disinterested in its female lead's personality, even by the standard set by a male lead whose personality is explicated through metaphorical stand-up; but it's the absence of any particularized conflict between Henry and Ann that makes it feel featureless. I suppose it's enough to simply understand that Henry, as his career takes a nosedive due to his inability to access the anger anymore, blames his wife and gets angry, but it's not the anger people want.)
The point I got distracted from up there was the "Sparks music videos," and of course Annette is basically a Sparks-driven rock opera. (Leaning more toward "opera" than having an opera singer character might even indicate, and not always to its benefit, because opera is a very distinct form, and I don't imagine one that rewards dillentantism.) I'm only slightly more familiar with Sparks than I am Carax (and guess what? when I'm already soldiering through a longwinded Swedish art filmmaker for another project, Annette dissuades me from doing any further diligence on him), but I do largely like Sparks, and was as surprised as anyone when 2021 became such a big Sparks year. (Curiously, my introduction to them was neither this nor the Edgar Wright rockumentary, but Rollercoaster. It makes me like them less that although they thought Rollercoaster sucked, Annette is the movie they'd actually make.) Anyhow, apparently Annette was originally their baby. Meeting Carax through a song licensing deal for Holy Motors, it seems that's how the director got roped in, whereupon he seems to have rebuilt Sparks's Annette into an autobiography about his dead wife and sad daughter, which may explain why Ann's nameless accompanist (Simon Helberg) becomes more important to the movie, even as Ann becomes less so. It also explains the odd "Jacob imprinted on Bella because really he imprinted on Renesme" thing that the plot seems to be doing with him, until it drops a bomb that suggests either Carax misunderstands legal paternity or I misremember my family law course. Plus, no, I don't feel bad referencing Twilight to obliquely explain the plot of Annette.
Well, I don't think if all I ever heard from Sparks was Annette that I'd like them much: the songs that work are very good—this includes the one that accompanies Annette's birth, the one at the end, and really all the songs that approximate a proper song's structure, and the actual music is fine or better, but God, the lyrics can be tedious. Besides the sung-through aspect (okay, it's only about 95% sung-through, before you get on me about it), which like it always does homogenizes the sound while also preventing the "big" beats from landing, it also has a tendency to repeat itself, sometimes in a downright chantlike manner, and sometimes in ways that build the music up (as the music itself is likewise often constructed out of rhythmic repetition)—but not usually.
Usually it's in ways that have you thinking about how nearly every line in the entire film is technically a "lyric" yet somehow only about twenty to thirty percent are actually unique ones. And then a lot of the time it doesn't rhyme at all, even slantwise, or the Maels feel the need to shove too many syllables into their meter, and since they're all Annette's got, it's a drag while you wait for the movie to right itself. The aesthetic gluing them together, outside of a few more fanciful—I don't think the right word is "setpieces," but let's say "old-fashioned cinematic illusions," including a pretty rad-looking scene on a boat—is mostly cinematographer Caroline Champetier standing in any given room with a handheld camera doing long takes and honing in on whatever's making noise. This is fine as far as it goes, and I acknowledge the effort made to give Annette a fairly colorful complexion even if it's a little plasticky, but to the extent the bold color-coding between its leads and occasionally in the set design, and the heavy artifice of the whole thing, ever pay off, it's mostly to remind you of how this is deconstructing and repurposing the classic musical form, and in an age where it's a genuine rarity to get a classically-built musical, let alone a good one, it's hard to appreciate this effort.
It does still have its high points. They come more often in the back half—bizarrely, the most affecting scene and frankly the best piece of acting and filmmaking in Annette prior to the finale involves Helberg's accompanist in a long, orbiting take of tears streaming down his face while he directly addresses us—and the finale itself is kind of great. It probably did need the film's goofiest, runtime-spanning conceit to hit as hard as it does, but, honestly, also probably less than Carax thinks. Otherwise, Annette is off-puttingly blunt, a collection of ciphers belting feelings at us in middlingly-sung monologues that insert emotion A into slot B and expect you to be moved or at least interested. It's strange enough to remain interesting, I'll give it that, but in its airless intellectualization of inner turmoil, it points in the direction of boredom, even if it never quite arrives there.
*I'm not thrilled by American states competing with one another to not tax our own film producers, either.