Cult musicians, iconoclastic director, gifted cast: Annette should be nuttier

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | July 29, 2021

The first five minutes is off the hook. The rest? It’s all right.

Tuesday 20
Amazon Prime
3 out of 5

Let me quote that Boromir meme from Lord of the Rings: one does not simply walk into a Leos Carax movie.

The French filmmaker doesn’t follow the unspoken laws of modern filmmaking. He might add a musical interlude in the middle of a movie just for fun. Or insert himself in the narrative. Or create a character called Merde and make him a recurring presence in his filmography.

Annette follows tradition with an exhilarating five-minute opening: Carax, Ron and Russell Mael (recently profiled in Edgar Wright’s phenomenal documentary The Sparks Brothers), the cast (Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg) and the backup singers break out from a recording studio and sing the sarcastic “So may we start?” as they walk the streets of Los Angeles. That level of energy is hard to match…

…and the rest of the movie can’t do it. It’s not like Annette is a fiasco — far from it — but it can’t meet its lofty ambitions.

At least in the beginning, Annette is a two-hander: Henry (Adam Driver) is an edgy comedian for whom every night is a soul-crushing experience. Never mind that he has the audience eating from his palm. He doesn’t feel worthy, and since the public is willing to go wherever he wants to take them, they’re contemptible by extension.

Henry is in a relationship with Ann (Marion Cotillard), an opera singer with a sweet career. Early in the movie, the couple describes their relationship with their respective audiences: “I killed them”, says Henry. “I saved them”, retorts Ann.

Deeply in love early on (based on the uber-repetitive one-line song “We love each other so much”), their relationship deteriorates as their fortunes diverge, but not before spawning the titular Annette. Their daughter’s voice is uncannily beautiful, and for Henry, worth exploiting commercially.

The film is at heart about artistic fulfillment and the lasting effects of failure. The movie belongs to Adam Driver, whose embodiment of an artist’s soul corroded by greed, envy and plain debauchery is extraordinary. The other side of the coin is Marion Cotillard, who is underused despite being game for anything.

Annette isn’t quite a showcase for Sparks. Ron and Russell Mael’s work here is mournful and far less sardonic than the material that made them (sort of) famous, almost Dancer in the Dark sad. But there’s beauty in their earnestness.

As with any film by Leos Carax, whimsy is a major component. Annette is played by a marionette, suitable given the treatment it gets from Henry and the perfect choice for a devastating ending.

While there’s no reason for the film to be two hours and 20 minutes long (generosity that was clearly not supported by the budget), and it doesn’t quite live up to the madness we’re promised in the first few minutes, Annette is a solid movie that’s not forgettable.