Before “Annette” dives into 140-odd minutes of moody songs and swooning tragicomic twists, director Leos Carax takes charge. In a grumbling voiceover, he advises his viewers to “hold you breath until the very end of the show.” It’s exactly the sort of impossible request that makes sense for this mind-blowing musical fantasia: “Annette” doesn’t just take your breath away; it keeps your breath hostage until the credits roll.
Combining the energizing compositions of Sparks with Carax’s ever-enigmatic creativity, “Annette” powers through its expressive rock opera conceit with a propulsive Adam Driver at its center. He sings through virtually every scene as if the world depended on it. And for the purposes of this movie, it does: Carax’s first directorial effort that he didn’t write, “Annette” turns on the peculiar balance of the Sparks’ compositions, Carax’s operatic style, and Driver’s deranged performance as a comedian doomed to fail. Sure, there’s also a wooden baby that sings and the occasional cutaway to a melancholic gorilla, but they all exist to support the larger cause.
As a pure experimental ride expressed entirely through song, “Annette” works in fits and starts with the same surreal blend of haunting beauty and dry, absurdist humor that Carax brought to “Holy Motors.” At times, it trades that movie’s cosmic mystery for a blunter narrative arc. Sparks has apparently been trying to apply their winsome songwriting talent to film for decades, at one point even plotting with the late Jacques Tati, but their musical bonafides don’t equate to a cogent script. Still, marvel at these flaws and the appeal of “Annette” comes to life: With a story less enthralling than the spectacular way it unfolds, the movie often exists in conflict with itself, and the messiness is its greatest asset as Carax and his musical companions map out the trajectory of a man marred by the exact same condition.
As wild-eyed standup performer Henry McHenry, Driver plays a man whose entire skillset is steeped in provoking a strong reaction. Andy Kaufman by way of GG Allin, Henry prepares backstage in a green robe like a prize fighter out of “Raging Bull,” and brings that same combative spirit to his performance. He barrels across the stage in song and rap as if on the verge of self-immolation (and at one point even wraps the microphone cord around his neck) while the audience sings along with him and responds to his every whim.
Despite his psychotic demeanor, though, Henry somehow maintains a fairly normal romance with opera singer Anne (Marion Cotillard in a muted turn), at least until he grows to resent her success and his drunken antics destroy their relationship on the public stage. In the midst of a violent breakup, a literal chorus of #MeToo complaints, and Henry’s general tendency toward catastrophic decisions, the couple give birth to the eponymous daughter, the aforementioned puppet. Annette looks like a Chucky Doll with a dose of the DNA behind the monstrous Merde character who populates multiple Carax films, but that might be all in Henry’s head. Intent on seeing everything as tools under his control, the child represents his last desperate attempt to stay relevant in a world on the verge of giving him up.
But enough about plot: “Annette” works as well as it does because its outlandish story has been doused in beguiling melodies and a cinematic tapestry that supports it at every turn. This is a movie that literally begins with its director and musicians walking into the movie alongside their leads, then waving goodbye to them as they enter the next scene. The dazzling opening number, “So May We Start,” owes as much to the accordion interlude of “Holy Motors” as it does anything in Sparks’ repertoire, though there’s an instant meeting of the minds that comes from this epic introduction to the gamble to come. Edgar Wright’s recent sprawling documentary on Sparks explains how sibling songwriters Ron and Russell Mael — who appear like a Greek chorus multiple times throughout “Annette” — use upbeat compositions to explore deeper emotional conceits (Wright’s movie serves as requisite viewing for anyone looking to get the full “Annette”). Like Sparks, Carax excels at using sleek, entrancing surfaces to explore the poetic contours of a dark, enigmatic existence. They’re a good match.
Consider, for instance, the swooning romantic melody “We Love Each Other So Much,” a gentle earworm that might sound a bit corny on its own, but becomes a lot more memorable once Driver’s character sings his verses in the midst of giving head. By setting the song to a passionate sex scene, Carax deepens the underlying strangeness of the material by placing it somewhere between punchline and gut-punch, and that’s the essence of the movie as a whole. When Henry’s audience — who initially laughs in rhythmic passages as Henry demands — eventually revolts against him, his bluesy delivery of the line “What’s your fucking problem?” is both silly and sincere. There’s a birth scene set to a snappy melody and a paparazzi photo session set to a staccato beat. Every song has a similar silly-strange quality as well as a clear sense of purpose. It’s funny until it’s not.
The irony, of course, is that Henry’s not actually that funny at all. Like Bo Burnham wrestling through his existential crisis in “Bo Burnham: Inside,” Henry has put so much into turning his entire existence into a spectacle that he has no stable recourse when the public stops watching. But his gimmicky routine may have been doomed from the start. “Why did you become a comedian?” the crowd asks him, and he replies that it’s “the only way to tell the truth without getting killed,” but from the outset Henry seems to have a death wish. “Annette” frequently questions the very idea of laughter as a defense mechanism, right down to the most terrifying tickle attack ever put onscreen.
The movie’s actual comic relief comes from Simon Helberg, in a hilarious deadpan turn as Anne’s accompanist (“The Conductor”), whose best scene comes as he tries to stuff in some expository dialogue in between composing an orchestra as the camera swirls around his face. “Annette” revels in moments like these, where the story works in congress with Carax’s intent to give each scene its own distinctive tone. Along with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, the filmmaker follows his characters with an acrobatic approach on par with the undulating moods. Kylie Minogue’s soulful performance in “Holy Motors” may have been the dry run, but Carax has been hinting at musical ambition in his work ever since 1991’s visually spectacular romance “Lovers on the Bridge,” and seems even more in sync with the nature of the story than the songwriters who came up with it.
But “Annette” would have a hard time justifying all that intensify without Driver’s stunning physicality to hold it all together. Onstage in his boxers and careening across the room with balletic precision, he’s equal parts Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” and Jesus Christ Superstar, the full weight of his passive-aggressive posturing unleashed. That dialed-up quality frequently overshadows Cotillard, and Anne’s passive state for much of the movie speaks to the half-hearted nature of the role. Of course, “Annette” is Henry’s story, and the movie has the same issue with her that he does. It may as well exist entirely within his head.
Carax has directed just six movies in nearly 40 years, and “Annette” is the latest proof why: Each one turns on such an intense burst of aesthetic desire that it’s a wonder he has anything left in him by the end. “Annette” doesn’t waste a second of its 140-odd minutes (not even the curtain call of the post-credits sequence). Sure, the carnivalesque twist of the final hour is a touch heavy-handed, and it’s not the only one. Yet as the movie settles into a quiet, somber finale, life and performance collapse into a single contorted mass and “Annette” becomes a metaphor for its own bumpy ride. Hovering on the brink of collapse, it’s a delicate dance between genius and fiasco, much like Henry himself.
“Annette” premiered in competition as the opening night selection of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
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