Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Leos Carax’s ‘Annette’: Film Review | Cannes 2021

Driver plays a standup comic and Cotillard an opera singer whose love yields tragedy but also produces an extraordinarily gifted child in the French filmmaker’s movie musical, scored and conceived by Sparks.

In the winsome opening scene of Annette, director Leos Carax appears in a Los Angeles recording studio, kicking things off as Ron and Russell Mael, the art-pop siblings known as Sparks, begin singing “So May We Start?” Only a few bars in, they step away from their microphones and out of the studio, followed by four backup singers and joined by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, the stars of the film. Supporting player Simon Helberg then saunters along as the entire group, trailed by Carax and his daughter Nastya, bounce along the streets of Santa Monica singing the exhilarating tune, which is deceptively simple yet has the musical intricacy and playfulness that are Sparks hallmarks.

That prologue, foregrounding the artifice before diving into the story proper, signals that Carax is very much in command of a genre new to him but a logical extension of his freewheeling style. A gifted director whose sweeping romantic visions have encompassed ecstasy and anguish, he would seem in theory to be a natural fit for the movie musical, particularly one that’s a dark fairy tale about a man so consumed by love he ends up destroying it. In that sense, Annette nods back to the films of the 1980s and ‘90s that thrust Carax onto the map: Bad Blood, The Lovers on the Bridge, Pola X.


The Bottom Line

A bold experiment that’s frustratingly out of tune.

Release date: Friday, Aug. 6
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell, Russell Mael, Ron Mael
Director: Leos Carax
Screenwriters: Ron Mael, Russell Mael

Rated R,
2 hours 20 minutes

But coming almost a decade after his last feature Holy Motors, the dazzling kaleidoscopic reflection on cinema that ingeniously doubled as a Carax career retrospective, the stubbornly flat new film is a strange and discordant creation. The different sensibilities involved rarely mesh together and the songs — mostly thin and unmemorable, more often talky than melodic, with obsessively repetitive lyrics — seldom ignite much feeling.

The dynamic force at the middle of it all is Driver, a tornado of physical intensity and tortured self-loathing as Henry McHenry, a kind of 21st century Lenny Bruce dubbed “The Ape of God.” His dyspeptic stage persona and punchy performance mode — he literally prepares for each show like a boxer warming up, bounding out in a bathrobe and swinging his mic cord like a weapon — make the character’s fall from grace a powerful arc. But Driver often seems to be acting in a vacuum, not satisfyingly integrated with the other players or the story that’s unfolding.

The concept by the Mael brothers, at least in this treatment, fails to answer the fundamental question of a musical — why is this story being told in song? The insubstantial narrative can’t support the bold, operatic strokes of the storytelling.

This is disappointing coming on the heels of Edgar Wright’s wonderful documentary The Sparks Brothers, which outlines the Maels’ longstanding desire to make a movie. They acknowledge Jean-Luc Godard as a formative influence and recall being crushed when film projects fell apart, the first a collaboration with Jacques Tati, the second a manga musical that Tim Burton initially signed on to direct. Sparks’ compositions here might have come alive as a concept album, but as the bones of a musical narrative they’re too generic in their sentiments to foster much emotional engagement.

When love blossoms for Henry and famed operatic soprano Ann (Cotillard), their careers are equally ascendant. Their styles, however, could not be more different. He bares his ass at the audience when exiting the stage, the signoff of an act rooted in nihilistic contempt; she takes gracious bow after bow, getting showered with flowers after dying exquisitely on stage every night — a not exactly subtle bit of foreshadowing. “I killed them,” Henry says of his public. “I saved them,” responds Ann of hers. The entertainment press, represented at regular intervals by chirpy updates from a pop-culture TV news show, has christened the couple “Beauty and the Bastard.”

The always likable Helberg has the thankless role of Ann’s unnamed accompanist, who has ambitions to become a conductor. He had a brief relationship with her before she met Henry and now regrets not having been more demonstrative with his affections.

Henry and Ann sing “We Love Each Other So Much” while walking in the woods around their home outside L.A. or zooming along freeways on Henry’s motorcycle. But there’s an imbalance in the two lead performances, with Cotillard remaining a somewhat wan presence. Ann is seen frequently eating an apple, but any allusion to Adam and Eve remains fuzzy. They marry and she soon becomes pregnant, prompting visions of blood-drenched childbirth and a baby with a garish clown face. That child is Annette, represented by a marvelous Pinocchio-like wooden puppet, its features both innocent and inscrutable yet unexpectedly expressive.

The narrative veers into A Star is Born territory as Henry’s standup act grows increasingly sour and hostile, alienating his audience, while Ann’s fans become even more feverish. Half-asleep in the back of her limo, she sees a news report in which six women come forward accusing Henry of abusive, violent behavior, a thread never mentioned again. As the entertainment press speculate on their troubled marriage, the couple takes a break from the spotlight on their yacht, and Carax again points up the trickery of cinema by tossing them about against a back-projection storm of Poseidon Adventure proportions.

Carax’s trademark bonkers magic elevates many of these scenes, to be sure. But there’s also a nagging naiveté, even a silliness to the storytelling that kept bumping me out of the sluggish drama. In the later developments, “Baby Annette” becomes an international sensation as she channels her mother’s singing voice in a tour organized by Henry and the accompanist, now a fiery conductor. But Henry abruptly announces he is discontinuing his daughter’s performing career, following one final halftime Hyper Bowl show. Flown in by drones to sing atop a massive elevated plinth, Annette instead remains silent, eventually addressing the crowd with a single damning statement.

Premiering as the opening film at Cannes ahead of its U.S. theatrical and streaming debuts through Amazon, respectively Aug. 6 and 20, Annette no doubt will engender much adulation from the auteurist faithful. And the far-from-prolific Carax deserves ample credit for sticking to his wildly unconventional guns in his first English-language project. He thanks an eclectic bunch of names in the end credits, including Edgar Allen Poe, King Vidor and Stephen Sondheim. But this is the director’s first film in which the mystery and enchantment never fully transcend fabrication to create something immersive.

“I cast my eyes toward the dark abyss,” says the bereft Henry in the climactic scene, when Annette has become a flesh-and-blood child (Devyn McDowell), confronting him with the awful reality that he has no one left to love. There’s a sudden, stinging poignancy to that encounter that ends the film on a note of sorrowful resonance. But at 140 minutes, it’s a long, numbing sit to get there.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: CG Cinéma International, Théo Films, Tribus P Films International, ARTE France Cinéma, UGC Images, Detailfilms, Eurospace, Scope Pictures, Wrong Men, RTBF, Piano
Distribution: Amazon Studios (August 6 theaters; Aug. 20 streaming)
Cast: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell, Russell Mael, Ron Mael
Director: Leos Carax
Screenwriters: Ron Mael, Russell Mael
Producers: Charles Gillibert, Paul-Dominique Vacharasinthu, Adam Driver
Executive producer: Olivier Gauriat
Director of photography: Caroline Champetier
Production designer: Florian Sanson
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne, Ursula Paredes Choto
Music: Sparks; lyrics by Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Leos Carax
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Casting: Carmen Cuba
Sales: Kinology

Rated R, 2 hours 20 minutes