I can imagine French filmmaker Leos Carax has wanted to make a musical for decades now. Just picture the exuberance captured in the single take of Denis Lavant writhing down the street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in the 1986 film Mauvais Sang. Or the homeless chic aesthetic of The Lovers on the Bridge (1991) that’s basically an entire music video tailor made for MTV in the 80’s.
With Annette, it seems he found his match. It’s a film both ludicrous in design and narrative where characters sing all their pretty obvious lines to match the emotional turmoil swirling around them and a visually arresting art-film that allows for plenty out-of-left-field ideas. By the time a wooden marionette baby shows up and begins to replicate her opera singer mother’s talented voice, we know we’re not in the usual, safe Disney vein. Annette is something altogether different, and while it doesn’t always hit its grand intentions, it’s never boring and certainly unlike anything else out there.
Confined to just a few characters, the film stars Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver as celebrity personas- he a cranky, aggressive stand-up comedian and she an opera singer- who, when the film opens, are already deeply in love and the subject of tabloid fodder. Although the film never really shows us their attraction outside of one sweaty love scene (still performed in musical verse, of course), it does hit a sweet moment of affection as the two walk through the woods together and Cotillard pushes her face into his shoulder as he sings to her. It’s a genuine moment that, whether improvised or not, reveals that she probably cares more for him than he cares for her.
That becomes crushingly obvious as the film proceeds, basically shoving Cotillard out of the frame and focusing on the loss of self that Driver struggles against. Whether it’s jealousy over his wife’s opera career or something deeper, Annette shifts directions from sweetness to disillusionment as it becomes a corrosive fantasy in which their baby (of the film’s title) picks up her lost mother’s talented voice and gives Driver the fame he’s been searching for.
Granted, most of the mileage one gets out of the film depends on one’s temperament for Driver’s character. Given two very long stage acts in which he berates his audience and makes one wonder just exactly what the world sees in him as an anti-comedian, it’s a unique performance that sets his path down the road to enlightenment that much more difficult. As a typical tortured soul in the Carax universe, he embodies a generally unlikable person, even when words are rolling from his voice in tune.
Written by Sparks- the much lauded rock/pop duo who’ve certainly owned 2021 after the Edgar Wright documentary released last month- Annette has been a decades long ambition for them. Like their own brand of self conscious music, the film is at times loopy and self referential before turning incisively bitter. In short, it doesn’t always work but when it does, it brandishes a sense of wit and unhinged charm that’s hard to deny. I just wish the entire film would have been as joyous as the opening few minutes and its “May We Start” number. It’s a moment of sheer playfulness soon overcome by the film’s ultimate goals of jealousy, murder and solipsism. They can’t all be Fred Astair.
Annette opens in limited release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday August 6th at the Texas Theatre and Dallas Angelika. It begins streaming on Amazon Prime August 20th.