'Annette' Is an Aggressively Strange Movie Opera with Death, Romance, and a Puppet Baby
Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver star in this bizarre and maybe brilliant musical.
Annette, the new movie musical written by the band Sparks and directed by Leos Carax, opens in a recording studio. Carax himself is behind the sound board, and Sparks, the brothers Ron and Russell Mael, are behind the microphones. As they start to sing the opening number, the fairly self-explanatory "So May We Start," in which the titular lyrics are repeated over and over again, they spill out onto the streets of Los Angeles where they are joined by the cast, including Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. When the song is over and Driver and Cotillard go their separate ways, the Maels say cheery farewell to the characters they are playing, "Henry" and "Ann."
If the stilted artifice of the moment is disarming, that's only a taste of what is to come. Annette, out now in theaters August 6 and on Amazon Prime August 20, is an at times laborious, at times hilarious melodrama that operates as a commentary on melodrama. It's a movie that's so much more than the headlines surrounding it—among them the fact that Driver sings while performing oral sex on Cotillard, and that their character's offspring is portrayed by an unnerving puppet. And yet it's decidedly a "your mileage may vary" type experience, even for the people that end up loving it.
It's helpful that Edgar Wright's Sparks documentaryThe Sparks Brothers came out earlier this year, offering a cheat sheet for those unfamiliar with the pop band's extensive oeuvre. If you don't know Sparks—or haven't watched Wright's primer—you are likely to be baffled by Annette and its songwriting, which is rhythmic and repetitive. The lyrics are blunt. In one sequence, the one where Driver does the thing everyone's talking about, Ann and Henry sing "we love each other so much" to each other repeatedly. It often feels like you're watching an opera from another language that has been translated into English—and that's sort of the point. Sparks and Carax take the tropes of that genre and magnify them through their own bizarre lens. Annette is slow moving but a lot of drama happens: There's romance, death, birth, betrayal, global superstardom, ghosts, and more.
The version of Hollywood and the entertainment industry on display here is a warped, funhouse mirror one. Driver plays Henry McHenry, a provocative comedian who performs as The Ape of God. Before his set, he simultaneously eats a banana and smokes a cigarette, a combination that looks as disgusting as it sounds. What we see of his act is not reminiscent of what anyone would describe as stand-up. He barrels around the stage in a hooded robe questioning the very nature of comedy as the audience responds as a chorus. He does not tell jokes. Cotillard is Ann Defrasnoux, a lauded opera singer, known for dying on stage. When she's not gorgeously in turmoil, she eats apples. He's an ape; she's an angel. He's a banana; she's an apple. He kills; she dies. Get the picture?
These characters, and the archetypes they represent, are nothing new, but Sparks and Carax aren't trying to reinvent the wheel. They are trying to refurbish it. Ann and Henry get married and have a baby, who emerges from her womb as a puppet with big ears and a blank expression that gets more and more lifelike as the film progresses. The redheaded baby Annette's arrival fractures Ann and Henry's relationship—he, like so many movie men before him, starts growing jealous of her success; she has visions of the danger he potentially poses.
Equal parts Pagliacci and A Star Is Born, Annette tells a familiar story amplified to an absurdist degree. The narrative is tragic, but audience members are more likely to find themselves laughing than they are crying, and it would be inaccurate to think that Sparks and Carax are not in on the joke. C'mon, Driver is playing a man named Henry McHenry. And yet Cotillard and Driver play their parts with deadly serious determination, which in itself is part of ruse. As Ann, Cotillard is supposed to suffer, and suffer she does, beautifully. As Henry, Driver creates one of the most off-putting creatures to ever storm the screen. He twists the sort of broken, offbeat heartthrob he's been cultivating ever since he appeared on Girls into something monstrous. His routines are alternately fascinating—he writhes on the floor with gusto, mimes hanging himself—and hard to watch, his work impressive and revolting at the same time. Neither of the two leads are brilliant singers, but Sparks' score does not demand that they be. The tunes are not about vocal gymnastics, but they are earworms, pop music gone askew.
Annette is certainly not for everybody, and it's really hard to blame someone if it's not their cup of tea. It's an aggressively strange movie, one that is designed to unnerve as it challenges and mocks the myths that have shaped movies and their stars. Perhaps the puppet Annette should be your bellwether: Either she remains as creepy as she sounds or she blinks her way into your heart. If it's the latter, you might be under Annette's spell.