Synopsis: The story of Henry, a stand-up comedian with a fierce sense of humor and Ann, a singer of international renown. In the spotlight, they are the perfect couple, healthy, happy, and glamourous. The birth of their first child, Annette, a mysterious girl with an exceptional destiny, will change their lives.
Stars: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Rila Fukushima, Devyn McDowell, Angèle, Rebecca Dyson-Smith, Ron Mael, Russell Mael, Natalie Mendoza
Director: Leos Carax
Running Length: 139 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Well now here’s a film for all of you out there that have been wondering where all the art-house oddities went over the past year. I’m as big a fan as the rest of you indie darlings of the avant-garde go-for-broke attitudes of daring directors and usually am up for the challenge of an askew film that tests narrative boundaries so there’s very little reason why a movie like Annette wouldn’t have been appealing to me. To top it all off, it’s a musical for heaven’s sake. And not the kind of musical you think of when you hear ‘musical’ but more of a modern take on a rock opera that’s clearly been well conceived and is undeniably executed to the max and then some.
So why the low score for Annette, the English language debut of notoriously wild and crazy French director Leos Carax, a filmmaker that I have heard so much about but had managed to never encounter until now? Why the overall thumbs down to the movie with a score by Sparks (the cult band comprised of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who also wrote the script and are fresh off of a Edgar Wright-directed documentary of their own) who contribute a dizzying array of eclectic tones and tunes for over 90% of the nearly two and a half hour run time? Well, sometimes you just have to know when to say when with a concept/idea and Annette never knows when to stop, nor does it seem to understand its created a central character so remote they almost manage to escape from the film entirely by the end.
Bad boy comedian Henry (Adam Driver, Marriage Story) and rising star opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard, Assassin’s Creed) are the fresh-faced power couple that sell magazines and net viewers when featured on television gossip shows but at the start of the film the din of the outside world barely makes a rumble in their hemisphere of passion. Her serenity calms his darker nature while he stokes her romantic desire, making her a better performer. As her star rises, his eventually declines but not before Ann gives birth to their daughter, Annette. Born, as we’ll come to learn, with a special gift that manifests itself later in her life, the child will be their greatest success as a couple as well as their ultimate downfall.
There is of course more to the plot…but not much and I’m only leaving out pieces that will spoil the events occurring in the second half (second act?) of the mostly sung through film. A point of clarity, when I say sung-through I mean that the actors and background players use music to enhance their dialogue. So, it’s not all songs, per se, but that talk-sing with music underneath that gives the movie a definite gas pedal it can lean on or ease off at will. This has the effect of some rather chilling moments that Sparks creates with their music and which Carax uses to sometimes thrilling effect when it seemingly jumps in out of nowhere. From the very beginning of the movie which has the actors as themselves gathering together before going their separate ways, apparently to “start” the music from Sparks sets the mood and it’s the strongest element to be found within Annette.
Yet the music alone can’t save a tired retread of a plot concerning the ego-maniacal male overshadowed (through no fault of her own) by a woman that winds up paying for this perceived sleight against his pride. Casting Driver in this part (and Driver taking it) seems like too easy of a slam-dunk and the film suffers from Driver’s heavyweight approach to an already lumbering character. It’s no secret that I struggle with seeing the overarching appeal of Driver but even I can see a fine actor from ten paces and Driver has what it takes to create interesting characters – but not this time. The character has so many coarse turns that he’s a hot potato you can’t get anywhere near, nor by the end do you want to. Cotillard fares slightly better, only in a role that isn’t as challenging and frustratingly simplistic in its creation by the writers. The only other actor to play a major role is Simon Helberg (Florence Foster Jenkins) as Ann’s accompanist and former lover and Helberg at least feels like he understood the assignment.
Then we get to Annette herself. There’s no easy way to say this and it’s not that huge of a spoiler so we’ll just get it out there. Carax has cast Annette as…a doll. A red-haired doll that looks like a felt marionette with the strings digitally removed. I’m not saying Annette looks like Chucky from the Child’s Play movies but…she definitely looks like a distant relative. The doll is just flat out creepy and it’s not something you can easily get over and look past, especially when Driver and Cotillard are cooing over it as if it were the real thing. The idea of the doll begins to make sense the more the film plays and especially as it reaches its ending scene which is actually, finally, incredibly satisfying. The struggle to get there…it’s rough.
This is one of those films that the studio will want to get people into theaters to see because there you’ve made the effort to get out of your home, paid money for a ticket, likely gotten some concessions, and have made a commitment to seeing the endeavor through. Basically, you’re less likely to give up on it once Annette starts to feed on its weird fruits of the forest. Once this becomes available on Amazon Prime near the end of August, though, I’d love to see how long viewers watch the film before changing the channel because the impulse will definitely be there. I can’t outright recommend this one, despite some rather lovely visuals and that occasional trill up the spine when a song hits just right. Like Driver and Cotillard who often sing slightly off-key (Cotillard’s opera solos were dubbed, though), the film never stays on the right note for too long.