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Musical 'Annette' Tells a Mesmerizingly Bizarre Tale of Hollywood Romance

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GLOWER COUPLE Driver and Cotillard play a troubled celebrity pair in Carax's bizarrely lovely musical. - COURTESY OF AMAZON STUDIOS
  • Courtesy Of Amazon Studios
  • GLOWER COUPLE Driver and Cotillard play a troubled celebrity pair in Carax's bizarrely lovely musical.

Back in 2012, my favorite movie of the year was Leos Carax's Holy Motors, a surrealist ode to Paris and the acting profession. When I heard that the French filmmaker had a new feature out and that it was an English-language musical starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and the songs of pop duo Sparks, I was there. Annette opened the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

The deal

Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard) is an opera singer. Henry McHenry (Driver) is a comedian. Both are famous enough to pack large LA venues for their solo shows. She is ethereal and pure; he is all id and wild man. While she dies beautifully onstage for the delectation of cultured spectators, he "kills" audiences with his dark, self-hating humor.

In quick succession, Ann and Henry are in love. Then married. Then parents to a baby girl, Annette. But his career is floundering while hers is soaring. At one show, Henry makes an extended "joke" about killing Ann that goes over poorly, sending him into a depressive spiral. Meanwhile, Ann has nightmares about women coming forward to accuse Henry of misconduct.

When the two of them take Annette on a yacht vacay to revive their ailing marriage, things don't go swimmingly. And that's just the beginning of the oddness in store.

Will you like it?

Here are two things you should know about Annette: First, it's very close to being a sung-through musical, with the stylized characters and relationships that format often entails. Second, there are only four real characters, and one of them — Annette — is played by a puppet.

Yes, a puppet — not a piece of high-tech animatronics, but an obvious artist's creation, with visibly jointed limbs and a mesmerizingly anxious face. Everyone accepts her as an actual child. As her parents behave badly, Annette comes to resemble a Margaret Keane painting: pathos personified. And when she develops an unusual talent, the movie spins off into a realm of inspired strangeness that is part classical myth, part golden-age-of-Hollywood melodrama and part mordant modern satire.

The film's only fully developed character is Driver's Henry, who's basically the self-destructive Norman Maine from A Star Is Born, filtered through Twitter discourse about toxic masculinity. At his gigs, he jogs onstage in a ratty bathrobe like a boxer and taunts the audience. Fame and love sicken him, yet he craves both. He's an archetype that Driver's committed performance brings to resonant life, and when he makes his inevitable heel turn, it's a pleasure to boo at him.

Ann seems to represent Henry's opposite number, embodying the innocence and romanticism of the musical genre itself. (But is her innocence only a performance? The film leaves that question tantalizingly open.) The movie is structured by the tension between Ann's music and Henry's laughter, which he wields as a violent force; at one point, he fantasizes about tickling her to death.

On a visual level, Carax leans into the romanticism, filling the screen with sumptuous jewel tones reminiscent of The Red Shoes. In a hypnotic early scene, the camera follows Ann and Henry through the woods as they sing the earworm "We Love Each Other So Much." We know almost nothing about these people or why they love each other, but the ostentatiously simple song suggests it doesn't matter. They're placeholders in a story as old as time — or as old as Hollywood, anyway.

As it gradually foregrounds its own fictive absurdity, Annette gains an anarchically comic dimension. Sparks' songs, with their sweet, candy-floss melodies and tart lyrics, serve this shift well. Even a circling camera, when paired with a confession sung by a self-important conductor (Simon Helberg) in the midst of a rehearsal, can become a subversive joke.

The more ostensibly tragic Annette becomes, the funnier it is, but this may be one of the rare dramas that we laugh with rather than at. Our laughter is an expression of admiration for Carax's willingness to keep amping things up into the realm of pure, operatic absurdity.

And, after all, as Henry points out, jokes can be the only safe way to tell unpleasant truths. Unlike most musicals set in Hollywood, Annette isn't about finding love or realizing your dreams. It's about the all-devouring power of egotism. But maybe that's the most appropriate message for a musical fantasia in the times in which we live.

If you like this, try...

Holy Motors (2012; Kanopy, Pluto TV, Tubi, Vudu, Shout!Factory TV, rentable): Denis Lavant plays a man who rides a limousine around Paris, taking a different role at each stop, in Carax's surreal feature.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964; Kanopy, HBO Max, rentable): While far less cynical, this sung-through musical classic from French director Jacques Demy is an obvious stylistic influence on Annette. Both make inspired use of wardrobe and set design.

"BoJack Horseman" (2014-20; Netflix): It might seem odd to compare a live-action romantic musical to an animated series about a talking horse who used to be a sitcom star. But when it comes to satirizing the surreality of Hollywood, Carax and series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg are on the same wavelength. Henry and BoJack even exhibit the same toxic brew of narcissism and self-pity.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Annette"