Toward the end of Noah Baumbach’s 2019 film “Marriage Story,” Charlie, played by Adam Driver, breaks into an emotional rendition of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” from the musical “Company” while at a restaurant with friends, facing the dissolution of his marriage. It’s a beautiful scene—my favorite in the entire film, actually—and one that made me immediately want to see Driver in a full-fledged musical. Well, he’s in one now, but I don’t think Leos Carax’s “Annette” was exactly what I had in mind.
“Annette,” whose story and music are by Ron and Russell Mael of the band Sparks, centers around Henry McHenry (Driver), a provocative stand-up comedian, and his relationship with Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), a famous opera singer. They are in love, but their marriage heads into a downward spiral after the birth of their daughter Annette, portrayed in the film by a wooden puppet. A touch of the “A Star is Born” narrative sees Henry’s star decline as Annette’s rises, while Annette later proves to possess a remarkable gift that Henry seeks to exploit.
It’s hard not to admire what a bold movie Carax has crafted. “Annette” is the sort of mind-boggling art film that will either alienate or enthrall viewers depending on their tastes. For me, it was more of a mixed bag. I typically love films that are strange or surreal, and there’s no shortage of that in “Annette.” Visually, the scenes in “Annette” range from limited sets (like Henry’s comedy act or Ann’s stage show) to environments that push the boundaries of reality into fantasy, like a scene in which Ann and Henry confront each other on their yacht, a storm swirling gigantic waves around them. Thematically, “Annette” also dances around the real and imagined. We see both Ann and Henry dream horrible things about each other (Ann, for instance, dreams that six women have come forward accusing Henry of sexual harassment), and then of course there’s the fact that their daughter is embodied by a puppet. This isn’t commented on within the story; for now, I’ve landed on the puppet being a symbol of the control her parents have over her.
“Annette” doesn’t really commit to any concrete ideas, which allows the viewer to place their own interpretations onto what they are watching, but which is frustrating from a narrative standpoint. One thing that is clear is that the film’s overarching themes deal with love, obsession, and loss, but there isn’t enough emotion behind the spectacle to back these ideas up. Early in the film, Driver and Cotillard duet on the song “We Love Each Other So Much,” Driver’s Henry singing that with their love they are “scoffing at logic/this wasn’t the plan,” it’s immediately outing himself as a cynic with regards to romance. He’s tortured over his relationship with Ann and later Annette, his uncertainty and perhaps lack of desire to be a father evident as he is left to care for baby Annette while Ann performs. In that aforementioned song, Ann joins Henry in singing that their love is “counterintuitive maybe/so hard to explain,” revealing that she too is surprised by and perhaps unsure of their relationship. Maybe we just needed to spend more time with these star-crossed lovers in the early stages of their relationship, but from the start there’s almost too much cynicism in the air surrounding them, rendering even scenes of passion virtually passionless.
I don’t think this has to do with Driver and Cotillard’s performances so much as the story, however. Driver feels miscast as a stand-up comedian, but he doesn’t really get to actually be funny, so as a tortured creative working out his issues on stage, he gets to deliver the sort of intense monologues he’s so great at. He isn’t a technically great singer, but his distinct voice helps sell the song. Cotillard, meanwhile, has a lovely voice, and brings tenderness and vulnerability to her character with her performance. But she also feels largely wasted in this movie, taking less of an active role in Henry and Annette’s lives and serving more as a tool to fuel Henry’s obsessions. She isn’t even present on screen for a good chunk of the movie. Rather, the story focuses on Henry, a certified dick until the very end, when it’s too late. Even though “Annette” approaches the story in a wholly different manner, there have been too many movies centered around tortured male creatives for me to feel entirely interested or invested in Henry’s character arc—although it is fun and satisfying to witness Annette eventually taking back control.
If you’re coming to “Annette” because you’re a musical fan, there is thankfully a lot to love on that front. Even though the film opens with what I believe is the strongest number, many of the movie’s songs are performed and staged with big Broadway flair, making good use of the ensemble to back-up the principal characters. The Mael’s wrote the rock/pop tunes with their story first and foremost in mind, and it shows; the songs play an integral part in moving the story forward, rather than interrupting it. The songs “I’m an Accompanist,” for instance, is essential to introducing the character known only as the Accompanist or the Conductor (played by Simon Helberg), a rival for Henry’s for Ann and later Annette’s affections. The music and lyrics are frequently beguiling, even if the rest of the film doesn’t quite measure up. And the opening, “So May We Start,” which features Carax and the Mael’s and gathers together many of the films characters, interestingly serves as a sort of warning to the audience for what they are about to see, seemingly aware that the following film isn’t going to land for everyone: “the exits are clearly marked/thought you should know.”
I can’t say that I enjoyed “Annette,” and yet it is a film that I can see myself revisiting, to find out if my reaction changes, or if I notice something different, or if maybe another layer to the narrative reveals itself. But the most important thing to me when watching a movie is how it makes me feel, and “Annette”—despite containing a swirl of farce, romance, theatricality, drama, and surrealism—made me feel almost nothing.
“Annette” is now playing in theaters and will be streaming on Prime Video starting this Friday, August 20. Runtime: 141 minutes. Rated R.