Leos Carax is the director whose films have always been wilfully odd. Ron and Russell Mael (the brothers from the band Sparks) have also always been wilfully odd. Annette is a collaboration between the three and is therefore wilfully odd in spades. Starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, it is a fantastical, fever-dreamish, sung-through rock opera and I bet you won’t see a more wilfully odd film this year. As regular readers will know, I am generally fond of any film that busts all known Hollywood formats. Yet while I tried with every fibre of my being to like Annette I did not entirely succeed.
The original idea came from the Mael brothers who are currently enjoying a moment, having been the subject of a recent Edgar Wright documentary. (That said, they were no more knowable by the end than they were at the outset. We didn’t even learn why that moustache.) Carax (Boy Meets Girl, Pola X, Holy Motors) is the one-time enfant terrible of French cinema who is now, at 60, the sexagénaire terrible, I guess. He came on board later and helped develop the screenplay. The film opens with the song ‘So May We Start’, which breaks the fourth wall as Carax and Ron and Russell spill from an LA recording studio on to the streets, picking up Driver and Cotillard who we see putting on their costumes and preparing for the film itself. It’s a strong and pleasurable opening but not exactly new. Didn’t Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar — now there’s a rock opera — begin in just such a way? (The coach arriving in the desert. The actors disembarking. Remember?)
The basic particulars are: Driver plays Henry McHenry, a dark, abrasive, angry stand-up comedian and provocateur known as ‘Ape of God’ who is worshipped by his audience until they revolt. Cotillard, meanwhile, plays Ann Defrasnoux, a sublime opera singer who dies exquisitely on stage every night. The two fall in love, marry, have a daughter, Annette, and as I don’t wish to give too much away, I will say only that what had previously been plain crazy is now bat-shit crazy. The scene where Annette is born will have you going: whaaaaat? Elsewhere, I should have said, we have Ann’s accompanist (Simon Helberg) who is also in love with her.
The film moves from real streets to obviously fake sets and sometimes through obviously fake sets to real streets or vice versa. There are backing singers in slinky green slip dresses who appear and disappear. There are storms at sea, murders, deaths, swipes at celebrity culture, nods to #MeToo. There is rapturous sex. There is looking into the abyss and singing about looking into the abyss. Throughout, the songs stop for nothing, not even cunnilingus. It’s that kind of film. (If I didn’t know better, I’d have said Ken Russell must have been involved.)
Carax is a singular film-maker and there are some ravishingly composed scenes. But throughout, your literal brain will be having a hard time of it. Is this about high art v. low art? Destructive male rage? Why is Ann never far from a half-eaten apple? Why am I not getting this? If I drift off for a minute, will it be the minute that explains all the previous minutes? There are, I should say, a lot of minutes. The film has a 140-minute run time and eventually the constant, overwrought excess proves trying, as does the music, which isn’t that distinctive.
Driver is charismatic, even when portraying a character as unlikeable as Henry McHenry, yet disappointingly Cotillard isn’t given that much to do, save hanging around a half-eaten apple, beautifully.
Ultimately, whether you enjoy Annette will depend on your tolerance for films that never ask you to care. I’m upset I didn’t like it more.