The Pitch: It’s a tale as old as time: boy meets girl, boy and girl get married, girl… gives birth to a magical puppet child who threatens to alternatively destroy and define their artistic careers? Such is the story of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a vulgarian stand-up in a Pete Davidson-ian relationship with acclaimed opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard), both of whom, as the song says, love each other so much.
But when the two give birth to baby Annette — who, for all we see, resembles a papier-mâché marionette with jug ears and the most uncanny eyes — their lives crumble and crackle in the most unexpected ways. There’s murder, exploitation, and cunnilingus galore. What more do you expect from a collaboration between Leos “Holy Motors” Carax and Sparks?
My Baby’s Taking Me Home: Even before its love-it-or-hate-it premiere at Cannes this year, Carax’s strange, out-there musical was all set to mystify audiences unfamiliar with either the mercurial arthouse director or the perennially obscure band behind it.
Much like its titular moppet/Muppet, Annette is the lovechild of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks, who’ve been enjoying cult success in the margins of popular music for nearly half a century now. (Edgar Wright’s well-timed documentary primer on the Maels, The Sparks Brothers, is essential viewing if you want to get your feet wet.)
For those with at least a passing familiarity with their songs, Annette feels like a feature-length extrapolation of the Maels’ pet concerns and stylistic obsessions. You’ll hear the droll, darkly funny lyrics, often encapsulated by a single line or phrase that takes on new meaning every time it’s sung (e.g. “we love each other so much”). There’s Ron Mael’s lush, yet carnivalesque orchestration, caterwauling between abstract beauty and tongue-in-cheek irreverence from phrase to phrase. Sparks neophytes will wrinkle their nose at all the repeated lyrics; the Mael faithful will beam with glee when they work their 1975 classic “Bon Voyage” into a mid-act transition song.
And yet, while Sparks crafted the basic story, there’s clearly so much of Carax’s own relationship with art and his own family in the twisty, artifice-heavy fabric of Annette. We see him in the opening minutes with his daughter Nastya, whose mother, Yekaterina Golubeva, starred in Carax’s disastrous 1999 film Pola X before tragically dying in 2011. From there, Carax turned his grief into Holy Motors, and here he processes some more of those feelings of grief, self-hatred, and inadequacy.
This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us: At the heart of Annette‘s conflicted romance is the push and pull of artistic merit and of power. When we first meet Henry and Ann, they’re both successful in their own careers: Henry’s bizarre stand-up shows (in which he wears little but a green bathrobe and clambers through a chaotic mix of spoken word and bursts of disconnected songs) are greeted with peals of stagey laughter from an audience he can’t bring himself to respect. Ann, meanwhile, stars in lush operas in which she dies on stage every night, herself laid bare in a negligee. He kills onstage, she dies on stage. See where this is going?
Well, you might, but you might not expect it to get there so soon, nor might you necessarily expect what comes after — as Henry discovers a special secret about baby Annette he can commodify, with the aid of a “conductor friend” (Simon Helberg) with a curious connection to Ann and Annette. Henry’s motivations remain fluid: Is his exploitation of Annette a heartfelt ploy to keep Ann close to his heart? Or is it to keep himself afloat after his own career flounders?
The line between the artist and the public is consistently blurred, treating the audience less as a guest and more as an intruder as the film progresses. Henry’s audiences are simultaneously supercilious and demanding, shouting prompts at him during his shows. We hardly see Ann’s audiences — she seems to be performing just for us. Carax ushers us through plot beats courtesy of gossip TV segments speculating on the family’s every move, and Driver’s final line to the film is a grumbled “stop watching me” sent in the camera’s direction. Carax and Sparks believe in their artistic product but occasionally resent being treated as aesthetic objects to be dehumanized.
Driver is a towering, looming presence, charming and horrifying in equal measure. As Ann, Cotillard is possessed of her own uncertainties, but Carax chiefly portrays her as a doe-eyed innocent. He’s much more concerned with exploring Henry’s half-hidden monstrousness than what’s going on under Ann’s hood. (Metaphorically, of course, as the film’s notorious sex scenes — complete with singing through oral sex — are suitably European in their fleshy composition.)
The Verdict: Annette won’t be for everyone; hell, it’s probably not for most people. Further examination and a host of rewatches will determine whether its shagginess and unpredictability will stand the test of time, or be exposed as empty pretension. But in the haphazardly-assembled bricks of its construction, you can find plenty to enjoy — from Driver’s towering lead performance to its metafictional, Brechtian flourishes. (The ending duet is downright haunting, no matter where you land on the film at the end.)
Where’s It Playing? Annette begs “So may we start?” in select theaters on August 6th, and comes to Amazon Prime Video on August 20th.