Leos Carax’s first film in 9 years, Annette, is a minimalist musical that seems more intent on commenting on culture than attending to its characters. Consequently, it collapses under the weight of its feeble premise. Though Annette has moments of visual splendor and transcendence, the underutilization of its stars and irritating music make the movie a disappointing return for Carax.
Annette begins with Carax playfully alerting viewers to prepare for the film (breathing is not allowed). Meanwhile, the two-person group Sparks — who wrote both the music and story — begins conducting in a studio. Co-stars Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver walk out to a trafficked Santa Monica street, joined by other performers. The doe-eyed Cotillard puts on a red wig, preparing for her role in the story of Annette. Such a charming, exuberant dance between reality and fantasy is undeniably Caraxian, but the rest of the film doesn’t hold up to the opening scene’s vibrancy.
As the self-loathing provocateur comedian Henry McHenry, Driver skirts away on a motorcycle while Cotillard, as the nostalgic and esteemed opera singer Ann Desfranoux, boards a truck. Each head to their respective venues for performances. Ann is a darling ingenue to Henry’s asshole jokester, whose raison d’être is to make audiences uncomfortable. When Ann and Henry go public as a couple, they are mocked by tacky gossip TV channels (one headline reads “Beauty and the Bastard”). Ann and Henry move in together, get engaged and have the eponymously named child (who is depicted as a marionette doll) while their relationship grows contentious. Ann dreams of Henry as an abuser of women, reflecting her distrust of her beloved, who spectacularly contends with his commitment to Ann and is culturally “canceled” for offensive routines and erratic behavior. The couple comes to a breaking point when they take a private cruise, and a surprising twist occurs, jump-starting an array of shocking revelations that unfold with Sparks’ music, which decorates nearly every line.
Though Sparks does a serviceable job with the story in Annette, the music is lacking. Often, the rock opera features unexciting ostinatos, and the brief, musical exchanges between characters become increasingly annoying, especially during pivotal scenes. Whether featured with a confessional or admonishment, the constant singing in Carax’s film undermines the seriousness of the moments, demonstrating a challenging experience that is neither welcomed nor generative.
Driver and Cotillard do fine work as celebrities struggling to nurture their family while keeping their careers afresh. Still, their performances in Annette feel ill-delivered due to the thin script and shoddy filmmaking. Driver conveys Henry as a self-centered manipulator who controls women closest to him, but a certain distance between him and the viewer pervades his orbit. During Henry’s stand-ups, Carax and cinematographer Caroline Champetier film in dark tones and fail to use innovative angles. The framing of Henry’s intense routines, which aim to press buttons, is devoid of an immersive sense. Henry is neither funny nor offensive; his attacks on socially acceptable norms lack bite. Ann’s opera performances are filmed like a Metropolitan Opera scene, with a medium shot of her body barely capturing the singing star. Cotillard’s Ann then feels akin to a vessel for concepts rather than a manifestation of a human being.
Annette has several dialectics at work — the angry crowd against the stubborn man is just one — but it plays more like a diary of scattered thoughts and a feature with unpleasant music and characters, making watching it an arduous task. Not all is problematic, however. Carax tastefully uses transposition to flesh out the various binaries at hand. In a brilliant scene, Henry reacts angrily to a discovery while images of him performing cunnilingus on Ann are laid over his fuming state. The transposed frame juxtaposes the severity of Henry’s rage with his sensitivity, supporting but subverting critical generalizations of men in power. Despite such virtuosity, Annette continually shifts to a derivative and weaker style throughout, crumbling like a half-fused star on the brink of becoming a supernova.
Mo Muzammal is a freelance film critic based in Southern California. His interests include Pakistani Cinema, Parallel Cinema and film theory.