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Despite containing ballads entitled True Love Always Finds a Way and We Love Each Other So Much (sample lyrics: “We love each other soooo much / We love each other sooooooooo muuuuuuuch”), the new musical Annette does not want your adoration or affection. Rather, at every turn French director Leos Carax (Holy Motors) is intent on stoking your annoyance, animosity, disgust. This is a film about one exceedingly horrible figure incapable of being loved or feeling loved, and whose toxic touch turns everything to rust.
Although Annette is wrapped up in the swooning romance of song, it is more a repelling testament to the towering power of abuse. And I’m still unsure whether this makes Carax’s film an artistically admirable act of slap-your-face subversion, or merely a detestable and rather weak middle finger to the worlds of music, film and everything in-between.
As written by Ron Mael and Russell Mael, the American brothers better known as the eccentric musical act Sparks, Annette’s screenplay is almost entirely sung-spoken by its stars. This includes (ranked from most talented singer to worst) Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, and Adam Driver. The only nonmusical sections belong to Driver’s character, a sour comedian named Henry McHenry, who Carax captures performing his brand of stand-up – a noxious mix of Louis C.K., Dane Cook, and the star of the worst Fringe show that you have ever seen – at excruciating length.
When Henry is not onstage, he’s romancing the up-and-coming opera star Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard), a character who exists solely to serve as the trait-less object of affection of two wildly different men (the other being Helberg’s meek and kind pianist, named only “The Conductor”).
Quickly, Henry and Ann get married, have a baby, and grow to hate each other. But at least they have their precious baby daughter Annette to care for – and she does indeed need lots of attention, given how she’s played by a wooden marionette imbued with what might best be described as musical superpowers.
This, plus two scenes of musical oral-sex, all might make Carax’s film sound more original and excitingly weird than it actually is. As if it were a decades-later answer to the initial promise of “cinéma du look,” which Carax and fellow Frenchmen Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson were said to pioneer, or at least accidentally practice, in the eighties. At the very least, Carax is deliberately riffing on Beineix’s operatic Diva in Annette’s early, heady, celebrity-sparkle first act.
But aside from its genuinely electrifying opening number, So May We Start, in which Henry, Ann and The Conductor lock arms and stroll through downtown Los Angeles, Annette struggles to offer more than a repetitive and deadening dive into Henry’s personal abyss, a realm neither inspired nor compelling.
It is not as if a musical by definition must be bouncy and hummable, but there should be some sort of connection made between the artists and the audience – a stir that you cannot shake. Here, the Mael brothers make no attempt to build such a bridge (of any sort, really), resulting in a dry and protracted exercise in shallow Sondheim-lite absurdity that Carax cannot elevate.
Take away the music, and you’re left with a script stripped bare of ambition – the Maels have little profound or even moderately interesting to say here except that fame, you see, corrupts. Instead, the pair and Carax find their pleasure in pushing Henry’s ugliness in our faces until we’re practically black and blue. The filmmakers’ relentlessness reveals a particularly cruel streak that is less intimidating than it is tiresome.
Annette’s failure to ignite is especially frustrating because, not infrequently, Carax delivers images and moments that verge on the indelible. An early scene in which Henry and Ann weather a storm at sea feels ripped from a thousand board-book fairy tales, where the darkness of nature is softened by the primary-colour cartoonishness of early-evening storytime. The same goes for a sequence involving a whirlwind tour of international airports, the exoticism of world travel blending into a hypnotic rhythm of anonymous images and repetitive lyrics. And there is one undeniably emotional moment in which poor little baby Annette reaches the height of her powers that might make you lobby for an Academy Award for Best Puppetry.
Honestly, wrestling with Annette feels like something of an existential crisis. However sloppy its execution, this is a go-for-broke attempt at breaking and then reassembling the form. Watching it in an actual movie theatre, as Cannes audiences did last month when the film opened that festival, should prod even the most exhibition-agnostic moviegoer to recognize the medium’s much-missed power. And if I cannot applaud the audacity of a filmmaker like Carax – especially in the same week when I’m recommending the latest superhero movie, for god’s sake – then what am I really after here? What are we all seeking?
I’m not sure I can answer those questions right now. When it comes to Annette, there just isn’t that pure praise to be sung. Give me a few months to rest my voice, and ask me to start again.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.