Annette, the new rock opera from bad-boy French director Leos Carax, starts on an extremely charming note. We’re in the studio with the suddenly inescapable Mael brothers, aka pop duo Sparks, who are also listed as the film’s writers. A piano bangs out a jaunty rhythmic melody. “So May We Start?” the Sparks sing. Then the brothers stand up—Russell Mael puts on a scarf and pops his collar; brother Ron dons a jacket. Stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, holding hands, bound down the steps. Co-star Simon Helberg (yes, of The Big Bang Theory) is there, along with director Carax, a cigarette dangling Frenchly from his lips. There are children, Motown-style back-up singers, a general air of winking revelry, as the parade of singers march down the street. It’s all very promising—until it isn’t.
Carax, whose last film was the pretentious but undeniably effective Holy Motors, seems to be in a mode where he’s interrogating the dark side of celebrity and show business. In Holy Motors, star Denis Lavant played an actor-as-secret-agent of sorts, driving through Paris and donning a series of increasingly disturbing costumes and personas, as instructed by a mysterious voice on the telephone. It all worked, mostly because Lavant—a former acrobat who also seems like a bit of a contortionist as an actor—was so riveting.
Adam Driver is a different kind of physical specimen: large, hulking, and jolie laide, as the French say. Because of his size, shaggy hair, and rough-hewn appearance, there is something vaguely menacing about Driver, something Lena Dunham first explored in Girls and the Star Wars films have feasted on. Carax certainly takes advantage of it here.
Driver plays a stand-up comedian—really more of a performance artist/provocateur—named Henry. His stage name is The Ape of God. As is so often the case when comedians are depicted on film, Henry is not even a little bit funny. He stalks the stage wearing a bathrobe that resembles a boxer’s robe (he warms up for his gigs by shadow boxing) and insults the audience. “I’m sick of making you laugh, you bore me,” he barks. The audience, however, eats it up, even participating in a ritualistic call and response with Henry from their seats. It sort of annoyed me that Henry is such a bad performer and it pinpoints one of my larger issues with the film—that Henry’s contempt for his audience is, in fact, mirrored by Carax. Look how they drink it up, Carax seems to say—they’re so desperate to be entertained, to feel like part of something “edgy,” they’ve become masochists.
Henry is feeling a bit paranoid right now because, for the first time ever, he is in love. The object of his obsessive affection is opera diva Ann (Cotillard). He confesses that he’s not sure why she loves him (right there with you, Henry)—and it drives him to distraction. With virtually nothing in common, the couple sing a lot about how much they love each other. At one point, Henry sings a verse in the middle of performing oral sex, a first for a musical, as far as I know (unless I missed a scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers).
Pulling up to the opera house on his motorcycle after a show, Henry greets Ann, as paparazzi cameras flash intrusively.
How did it go, she asks?
“I killed. Murdered them. Destroyed them,” Henry says.
“I saved them,” Ann replies.
Now, I don’t want to be reductive, but I do think that this scene is the crux of the film. Carax became fascinated by all those aggressive and destructive words comedians use to describe success on stage, and built his film around it. Okay, I’m sure he has more on his mind than that, but let’s just say that was a major impetus.
Henry isn’t the only man in Ann’s life. There is also her former accompanist turned conductor played by Helberg, who pines after Ann and is consumed by jealousy of Henry. In a clever scene, he narrates the plot from the conductor’s podium, pausing when a particularly intense passage needs to be attended to. “Excuse me,” he says, briefly turning his attention back to the orchestra and then resuming the narration.
Most of the film is sung, with very little dialogue. Driver isn’t a great singer, but like all good actors, he’s able to pull it off through sheer force of will. Cotillard is a better singer but has less to work with. On top of the Conductor’s occasional narration, the film’s other non-singing narrative device is a TV show called Showbizz News that breathlessly reports on the relationship between Henry and Ann.
It’s through Showbizz News that we find out that Ann is pregnant and, eventually, that she has given birth to a little girl.
It’s here, reader, where I must tell you that Ann and Henry’s baby girl, Annette, is not a girl at all but a doll. Not as in, “Oh, what a doll”—but an actual doll. She’s somewhat cute, although her ears are too big and she has hinges in her face and extremities for movement, like a marionette. The film never addresses why she’s a doll, nor does it explain it. (What’s the French expression for weirdness for weirdness’ sake?)
With Annette in the picture, a question inevitably emerges: Will Henry be a good, or even safe, father? It’s worrisome, especially when we find out that his career is sputtering, just as Ann’s is soaring, and he’s angry about it. (Angrier, I should say: Henry’s default is angry.) Carax constantly dangles the potential of Henry’s dangerousness in front of us. At one point, while walking through a field with Ann, we watch as Henry’s large hands ominously loom over her neck. Is he about to strangle her? No, he merely rests them on her shoulders. In bed, he tickles her mercilessly and then later, in his Ape of God persona, confesses to an increasingly horrified audience that he has murdered her through tickling (all because she was the one who initiated sex, which turned him off). Is he actually a murderer? Is Ann dead?
Well, I guess you’ll have to watch the film to find out, but the film doesn’t seem bothered by—or particularly interested in—Henry’s misogyny. Having seen the whole film, I’m still not sure why I should care about Henry’s dark nature. He doesn’t seem like a tragic figure or a tortured artist—he’s just a sadist.
At this point, I need to address the music, which is, well, fine. As I said in my review of The Sparks Brothers, the Maels are incredibly prolific, which is both a blessing and a curse. Composing music obviously comes easily to them, perhaps too easily. As a result, a lot of their music has an ephemeral feel. There are a few good songs in Annette—”So May We Start” is actually my favorite—but even more feel like tossed off melodies or fragments of what could be better songs. It doesn’t seem like a rock opera triumph, a work of passion and obsession, which would’ve been more fitting for the subject matter. The soundtrack borders on cute.
A lot of people were very stirred by Annette, which had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, so I don’t mean to dismiss it completely. It’s clearly somebody’s jam. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I only saw the film once and not under ideal circumstances—namely, on my laptop. It certainly is beautifully shot—blending a cool, French new wave style with over-the-top gothic flourishes. It obviously would have more power on a big screen—and I will try to see it again in a theater.
But the film’s visuals aren’t enough to save it in my eyes. Clearly Annette is aiming for something surreal, thought-provoking, sexually intense, and tantalizingly dangerous. But I don’t think it really has anything interesting to say at all. In the end, I was more baffled than tantalized.
Annette is now playing at the Charles Theatre. It will be available on Amazon Prime starting August 20.