Leos Carax’s latest film “Annette” may be another case of style-over-substance, but what a wild and ambitious genre exercise it is. Exultantly gliding from one solid musical number to another as your typical sung-through musical film, the movie confidently reaches for more style and energy from the beginning to the end, and you will come to admire its numerous operatic moments packed with whirlwind emotional intensity, if you are willing to go along with its stylish mood and some deliberately outrageous aspects.
After the exhilarating prologue musical sequence where Carax and several other figures in the production including his composer/co-writers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks set the unabashedly artificial quality of the movie, we are promptly thrown into the ongoing romance between Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), two very different artistic figures who have somehow complemented each other since they fell in love with each other. While Henry is a popular standup comedian as provocative as Andrew Dice Clay or Andy Kaufman, Ann is an acclaimed classic opera singer relatively more respectable compared to her lover, and their unlikely romantic relationship has surely drawn lots of attention from the media as they willingly show more of their passionate romance in public.
When Ann subsequently gets pregnant, that seems to make her and Henry much happier than before, but, alas, there comes a big trouble in Henry’s career. As boldly reflected by Ann’s vivid but troubling musical dream sequence, a group of women step forward together for revealing how they were respectively abused and harassed by Henry in the past, and that consequently leads to Henry’s long descent into self-destruction. Those provocative schticks of his do not amuse his audiences any more, and he only comes to make his situation worse as getting himself mired in more rage and self-pity, while Ann’s career ironically goes up and up with more successes.
Now you may be reminded of “A Star Is Born” (1937) and its several remake versions, but then Carax catches us off guard when Ann eventually gives birth to her baby daughter, who is named, yes, Annette. We get a weirdly sentimental musical moment as Ann is going through the agony of her childbirth, and then Carax adds more artificial touches to amuse or distract you a lot. Right from when she comes into the world, Annette is presented as a, shall we say, very artificial figure, and it is kind of amusing to see how wildly and playfully the movie goes all the way with this outrageous setting during the second half of the film, which mainly revolves around Henry’s opportunistic attempt to capitalize on his baby daughter’s unbelievable talent.
It should be pointed out that the story and characters remain to be more or less than a mere flimsy ground for a bunch of songs written by the Mael brothers, so we come to observe the film from the distance at times, but the movie keeps things rolling under Carax’s skillful direction. I must confess that I do not remember that well many of the original songs in the film, but I was entertained by how they are fluidly and dexterously presented on the screen with considerable energy and personality, and the overall result is quite less tiresome compared to what I had to endure while watching “Les Misérables” (2012).
Carax’s two lead performers willingly throw themselves into many wild emotional moments in the film. Adam Driver, who has been one of the most interesting American actors during last 10 years since his Emmy-nominated breakthrough turn in HBO TV series “Girls”, is no stranger to singing as memorably shown from “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) or “Marriage Story” (2019), and he ably delivers several key musical moments including the one accompanied with “We Love Each Other So Much”, which can be regarded as the theme song of the movie.
On the opposite, Marion Cotillard is rather under-utilized in comparison, but, at least, she graces the screen as usual whenever she enters the screen. In case of Simon Helberg, who was very funny in “Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016), holds his own small place well around Driver and Cotillard as another substantial character in the story, and I also appreciate how the movie presents Ann and Henry’s daughter as someone more than a plot element.
Although it is less satisfying to me compared to his previous film “Holy Motors” (2012), “Annette”, which received the Best Director award when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year (It also deservedly received the World Soundtrack Award, by the way), reminds me again of what an adventurous filmmaker Carax has been during last several decades. After all those notorious troubles involved with “The Lovers on the Bridge” (1991) and “Pola X” (1999), his career seemed to be almost finished, but then he made a glorious comeback with “Holy Motors”, and “Annette” demonstrates again that he has lost none of his artistic ambition and talent yet.
To be frank with you, I am still not quite enthusiastic about the movie compared to some other critics and reviewers out there, and I will not deny that I was constantly aware of its many artificial aspects throughout its rather overlong running time (141 minutes). Nevertheless, I admire how Carax and his cast and crew members take a chance more than once here, and I think you should also take a chance. Regardless of whether you will like it more or less than me, I assure you that you will not forget this odd and singular piece of work for a long time.