Annette is a love story between comedy and tragedy. Which is not to say there is a partnership between these two creative impulses. How could there be when the outlook of director Leos Carax and rock band Sparks’ vision is so overwhelmingly tragic that it becomes their musical’s lone guiding star? And yet, seeing how one of those central tenets of performing art subsumes the other, and how Adam Driver’s evermore brooding presence can engulf even Marion Cotillard’s bubbliness, is hypnotic in its way.
As one of the buzziest films to come out of Cannes this year, Annette lives up to its singular hype: Yes, this is an honest to Sparks musical written by mercurial rock stars Ron and Russell Mael, and which features Driver and Cotillard singing during sex. But it’s the way the movie is aware of its inherent strangeness, particularly in moments like the sight of Kylo Ren and Talia al Ghul duetting mid-cunnilingus, that most clearly reveals its fixation with artifice. Indeed, Annette is a movie obsessed with the deceptions we accept, be it as an audience watching characters burst into song, or as lovers who ignore the flaws of our partners to our own peril.
Such is the tale of Henry McHenry (Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard). Henry’s a stand-up comic who tells funny lies to make his audiences feel better. Ann is an opera star who performs hard truths about life and death to make her audiences cry. They’re both after the same thing: honesty, yet Henry goes about it through deception, and as a way to hide from the darkness within himself. Ann confronts it every night with comforting beauty, hence why when they meet up afterward, Henry says he “killed” his fans while Ann insists she “saved” hers.
Both lovers are weavers of illusions, so perhaps that’s why when they have a child, newborn daughter Annette literally appears to be a puppet made of cloth. No, really, in Henry and our eyes, she is a puppet, and one with a unique gift that walks the line between Henry and Ann’s talents.
It’s serendipitous that Annette is making its premiere on Amazon now, only a matter of weeks after Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers documentary introduced the titular creative musical talent behind both films to a wider audience. As one of the most peculiar and beloved almost-famous bands of the last 50 years, Sparks are a tremendous musical force that were part of the British Invasion era of rock in the ‘60s and ‘70s (despite being from California) and who endured on to reimagine themselves as pioneers of ‘70s and ‘80s synth music, and then as composers in the ‘90s. With Annette, they try a new hat on as both the writers of the film’s story, as well as the songs which dominate most of the movie’s running time.
This is probably why I was reminded of a line in Wright’s doc: Audiences can never be sure when these brothers are being serious and when they’re just being cheeky. For at least the first half of Annette, audiences will most assuredly be asking themselves the same question.
Excluding an ebullient tribute to the musical act at the beginning of the movie, where both Sparks and the cast sing in one long tracking shot the band’s anthem “So May We Start,” the music and aesthetic conjured by Carax’s dreamy atmosphere is like a mournful dirge. This holds true even for a life that’s just begun in the case of poor Annette. Nothing your eyes see on screen feels necessarily real in a tactile sense—not with a singing puppet child nor with sights of intentionally exaggerated rear projection standing in for a nasty storm outside—but the overall effect these choices create is irresistibly melancholic.
Which might also be why another line from Ron and Russell themselves in The Sparks Brothers came back to me while watching Annette. Their musical storytelling was influenced by the movies of their youth. And for all of Annette’s strangeness, it very much plays like an old Hollywood melodrama of the 1940s, complete with accusations of betrayal, suspicions, and finally the unspoken paranoia of imminent homicide.
So the magic trick going on here might be just how emotionally raw Annette comes across despite such narrative histrionics. This is in large part because of its central performances. Driver is particularly brutal in the film in a role that calls on him to bear almost everything, figuratively and literally. His Henry is a comedian who wears his grievances on his sleeve, and every night before a new set, he prepares backstage like a prizefighter about to enter the ring by shadow boxing.
As with his most famous role, there is a simmering rage Driver embodies here, but with a greater degree of nuance and ultimately despair. There is little redeeming about this character, whose onstage comedy comes off as more bitter to our ear than funny when channeled through lyric and rhyme. It’s a sweaty, staggering depiction of self-loathing. He also brings the same anguished falsetto he did to that Sondheim number in Marriage Story, and indeed, one wonders if that inspired the Sparks who reach more toward the sound of Company than rock and roll.
Cotillard is solid as the fragile opera singer with an undeniably more powerful voice. But if her daughter is just an ornament of materials in her father’s eyes, then Cotillard’s Ann comes across as little more than a statue of porcelain, waiting to crack. The lack of chemistry between the two leads is also a weakness in the film, but given the toxicity of their relationship, one might wonder if that’s the point.
The other greater problem is the matter of whether director Carax (Holy Motors) is too indulgent in his artistic flourishes, right down to rendering the title character of the film as a puppet. The pretensions of this approach are undeniable, but then so is how startlingly uncompromising the film is in its lack of sentimentality, even as the music weeps for a doll and what she symbolizes to her father. Somehow all the indulgences converge into something that’s profoundly moving.
Annette is not a movie all audiences will enjoy. But it will haunt whoever lays eyes on its bitterest of illusions.
Annette is in limited release now and premieres everywhere on Amazon Prime on Aug. 20.