Annette is not quite like anything you’ve ever seen before. This should be signposted immediately by the fact that it’s directed by French maverick auteur Leos Carax and co-written by Ron and Russell Mael of cult classic pop band Sparks (having a moment this year due to Edgar Wright’s recent documentary) – but it still manages to surprise. It has familiar beats, but you won’t see anything cover them the way this film does. It takes age-old topics of celebrity, love, parenthood, artistic exploitation – and packages them into a cinematic opera for the ages. To be clear, this is 100% a wavelength movie – and it’s absolutely on mine – but it’s going to be a hard sell for a lot of people, especially people going into a musical. So, may we start?
It’s the story of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), both artists of very different persuasion and philosophy. He’s an edgy, self-loathing stand-up anti-comedian of the Bo Burnham musical variety, but with a lot less of the empathetic pathos and twice as much of the menace. He slouches around in a dressing gown with a backing choir behind him, seemingly obsessed with eliminating any opportunity for his audience to truly adore him, despite his need for their laughter, their love: “I’m sick and tired of making you laugh – but don’t leave me, don’t leave me.” She’s an angelic opera singer with the total devotion of her spectators, as her opera character dies tragically, sacrificially for them every single night.
Their worldviews are summed up effortlessly when Henry picks up Ann on his bad-boy motorbike after one of her shows. They ask each other how their performances went. His response: “I killed them… destroyed them. Murdered them.” Her response: “I saved them.” Henry sees art as a weapon; Ann sees it as a sedative – and how they go about their careers and lives with those tenets – and even eventually switch between them – is what forms Annette’s best drama and emotional resonance.
Cracks are forming, though. There’s trouble in paradise; Henry’s career and personal relationships are nosediving thanks to his pathological inability to accept or believe in the love others have for him, whether it’s his audiences or Ann herself – something she is slowly wising up to. She’s having strange dreams, of Henry being accused of violence towards women, or him running her down with his bike. Despite this, Ann gets pregnant and she gives birth, Henry at her side, to an adorable baby girl, Annette. The act of love brings them closer, but Ann continues to travel the world while Henry adjusts to becoming more of a babysitter to a normal child than a comedian.
Sorry, did I say “normal child?” As it turns out, Annette is a miracle. She’s born with an incredible artistic gift, wielding it with a purity that neither Henry or Ann can match. Eventually, he decides to use Annette’s power for his own financial gain – much to Ann’s displeasure. He enlists the help of her old Accompanist (Helberg, offering real warmth and gentleness amongst the steadily darkening horizons) and fame and fortune await them… but decline and tragedy seems inevitable, and things start shattering in every direction. “So, may we start?”
Everyone’s singing voices are blessedly devoid of the gratingly finetuned, Broadway style of performance – characters sing as naturally as they breathe (more than two thirds of Annette is sung-through), and they do so while walking upstairs, smoking, on the toilet – or even in the middle of cunnilingus. Cotillard absolutely rules in this movie, not just for getting her lines out in a head position as compromising as that one, but in how effortlessly she modulates Ann as the story marches forward. She starts off as angelic and sympathetic as her opera role suggests, but eventually becomes a hauntingly malevolent presence with a sense of agency that often cleverly inverts the tired “helpless wife” trope.
And Driver in particular always sounds like he’s bending every song to his will. His singing is excellent and emotional, but when Henry bursts into tune it’s like an exorcism where every note is a howl of rage and a cry of pain that’s worthy of Brando at times. And still, Henry is also capable of moments of such vulnerability and quiet and longing and regret – despite the abyss inside him that he steadily refuses to climb out of. Adam Driver’s performance here isn’t just an elongation of that beautiful, bittersweet scene in Marriage Story where his character sings “Being Alive” at a bar, but where he truly secures his place as a generational great. He’s never been better.
Carax’s fascination isn’t really in the initial bursts of inward romanticism, but in the synergy of love, the necessary effort it takes to maintain it – and what happens when it’s taken for granted. Everyone loves to talk about an artist maturing through their work, and this is a perfect example for our director. He’s not Leos the mad romantic, he’s Leos the father, and he’s less interested in singing down the street as he is making sure that he’s got his arm around his daughter whilst they do so. It’s an older man with different viewpoints – and more things to lose.
Annette focuses a lot on Henry as an artist, and in doing so provides a complete rebuke to the idea that suffering is necessary to make great art; encapsulated through his behaviour compared to the other two leads. During a beguiling early scene showcasing Ann’s talent, she sings an aria on a stage replicating a forest, before becoming so enraptured by it that she momentarily enters a real woodland – returning to the real world at the end to some much-deserved applause. Conversely, Henry is never shown to be anything but shackled by his stage (and by himself) walking back and forth like a prisoner or wrapping the mic cord around his neck.
It’s also explored during another absolutely spellbinding long take, where the Accompanist delivers an expository soliloquy in the middle of conducting a lush orchestra. Whenever his emotions get too outward for him, he pours it into the work and uses it as a release, creating a beautiful piece of music from his own pain. However, Henry’s tragedy is that his art can’t save him; he can’t connect with it in the pure way the other two can, because he sees it as a way to “disarm” people, to “kill” them before they can kill him.
Annette is still a tough sell, though. It’s completely uninterested in pandering to any expectations of a musical and is pretty alienating to its target audience (or any audience) in that way. Also how, like an opera, a lot of the lyrics are expositional, and there are one or two torturous ways of communicating this, such as interludes taking the form of piss-takes of a gossipy TMZ broadcast that fills us in on the state of Ann and Henry’s relationship. All valid complaints. But it doesn’t matter that much when the whole of it is this good.
Ultimately it’s a story of hope. Annette is a story of cycles spinning wildly out of control, but it also sees them shatter for good, in a claustrophobic, cathartic finale where Carax deploys his final narrative sleight-of-hand to brilliant – and utterly devastating – effect. But Annette isn’t devastating. It should be, but despite everything and despite the inescapable sense of loss and sadness at the end of the film, it’s like a cinematic shot of adrenaline. After every thrilling shift in the narrative, every moving peek into these sad, talented, broken people, you exit the film with an energy that nothing else can quite give you.
Annette is out in cinemas now