“So, may we start?” asks director Leos Carax at the outset of Annette, his first feature since 2012's exhilarating whatsit Holy Motors. He’s speaking to Russell and Ron Mael, better known as Sparks, with whom he wrote the film’s screenplay (based on their original idea). The question—made from the control room of a recording studio—sounds like a simple request to get working. In response, however, the brothers and their bandmates begin performing a song called “So May We Start?” After a few bars, the Mael brothers remove their headphones, still singing, and head out onto the streets of Los Angeles, where they’re joined by backup singers, a small boys’ choir, and the film’s three principal cast members: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, all singing along. The lyrics promise an extravaganza to follow, throwing in some wry asides (“The authors are here, so let’s / Not show disdain / The authors are here, and they’re / A little vain”); the tune is catchy as hell, a classic Sparks earworm. Mostly, though, this overture constitutes a declaration of principles, making it clear right off the bat that we’re in a world of self-conscious storytelling and foregrounded make-believe. It’s both an invitation and a warning.
Most people will know fairly quickly whether they’d rather accept the former or heed the latter. Annette is a maximalist film with a minimalist narrative—basically another riff on A Star Is Born, albeit with one truly bizarre element. Driver and Cotillard play America’s hottest new celebrity couple: Henry McHenry, a provocative stand-up comic billed as the “Ape of God,” and celebrated opera soprano Ann Defrasnoux. This duo has deliberately been conceived as stark, reductive opposites, in the melodramatic tradition. Henry warms up for his act like a prizefighter, skipping rope and shadowboxing clad in a hooded robe (Driver’s also ripped like an athlete); on stage, he radiates hostility toward the audience, the world, and himself, having internalized the lingo in which a successful performance “kills ’em.” Ann, by contrast, dies for the crowd’s sins every night, suffering in their place and for their delectation. Both are at the height of their fame when we first meet them, but Henry’s popularity gradually wanes while Ann’s continues to soar, creating familiar jealous friction on his part. Still, they’ve wed by now, and Ann is pregnant. Perhaps caring for a child will bring them back together. After all, baby Annette isn’t going to oil her own hinges.
Let’s come back to that, though, because summarizing Annette’s skimpy plot in no way conveys the grandiose daring with which the Maels compose it and Carax stages it. (The latter won the Best Director prize at Cannes last month.) While the film isn’t sung-through, there’s a new number every few minutes, with the actors performing their vocals live on camera for the most part—even when they’re riding Henry’s motorcycle at high speed down a late-night L.A. freeway, or when Henry’s head is buried between Ann’s legs during sex. Sparks has been a cult favorite for the band’s entire lengthy career, and their quasi-melodic approach here, heavy on repeated phrases both lyrical and musical, won’t be to every taste. Nor do these actors—including Helberg, later on, as Ann’s accompanist and Henry’s potential romantic rival—have particularly fine voices. (Cotillard’s operatic singing is dubbed by a professional.) The emphasis here rests firmly on the channeling of raw emotion via overt artifice, a technique that goes all the way back to one of the earliest Oscar winners for Best Picture, 1927’s Sunrise. Carax unmistakably has archaic modes of expression in mind, staging Annette’s dramatic centerpiece on a storm-tossed yacht that couldn’t more obviously (or more gorgeously) be surrounded by rear-projected waves.
“Maybe he just couldn’t afford to shoot on the ocean,” one might think, if not for another singular choice that’s just as abstract and far more expensive. When Annette is born—during a musical number, with singing doctors and nurses—the lights in the delivery room dim, seemingly to obscure our vision of the doll used in place of an actual infant. Soon afterward, however, we see baby Annette in broad daylight, and she’s still very clearly a puppet. Over the next hour, Annette will be “played” by a series of increasingly larger puppets and marionettes, all of which are just realistically human-looking enough to land smack in the uncanny valley (very much by design). Nobody ever comments on this oddity; she’s treated exactly as if she were human, though it soon becomes apparent that she possesses one unusual (but not inhuman) attribute. Henry, for reasons best left unstated here, is quite eager to capitalize on Annette’s remarkable gift, which soon makes her more famous than her parents combined. There’s no question that he’s exploiting her, but fully perceiving that, in the face of such a stark alienation device, requires an imaginative leap, which Carax provides in the film’s unexpected powerhouse of a finale.
And there’s so much more. Dream sequences. Police investigations. A six-part #MeToo harmony. The mystery of a wine-colored mark on the right side of Henry’s face that suddenly appears halfway through the movie and grows ever larger. Not one but two ghosts, both of the same deceased individual. Annette is so bold, creative, and fearless in its particulars that its broader shape is a little disappointing; at bottom, this is yet another semi-sympathetic portrait of toxic masculinity, one that doesn’t dig very deep into its protagonist’s warped psyche. (Driver thanks Chris Rock and Bill Burr in the closing credits, but Henry’s bitter, almost entirely laugh-free act calls to mind Tom Hanks’ asshole stand-up in Punchline.) And some ideas—Ann constantly taking a single bite of apples (is Cotillard Eve? Is Driver Adam?), or Henry’s penchant for tickling Ann (a quasi-violent act meant to provoke laughter, just like his vocation)—are overly cute. Driver’s ferocious performance provides emotional ballast, though, and Annette isn’t even really attempting to work on a psychological level, in any case. The film’s tension between sincerity and falsity is nonstop palpable; virtually every scene threatens to collapse and implode due to the gravitational weight of its heightened reality. The correct answer to any such mighty swing for the fences is: Yes, you may start.