‘Annette’ Sings a Dark and Original Musical About Doomed Love

Annette” is either one of the year’s most puzzling cinematic head-scratchers or audacious masterpieces. Is it possible to be both at once? This film nearly proves that it’s very possible. It is a rock opera and soap opera, a crass melodrama and also a profound exploration of guilt. Perhaps only director Leos Carax, who took this year’s Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival for this creation, could have pulled it off. The French auteur returns close to a decade after his audacious “Holy Motors,” a wildly free-form defiance of what we usually consider a “normal” movie. Now he does it again with a musical unlike any other take on the genre. Carax has found the perfect partnership with Ron Mael and Russell Mael, best known as Sparks, a music duo also dismissive of going with the mainstream flow.

It begins as a dreamy romance tailor-made for Los Angeles. A shock comedian named Henry (Adam Driver) is engaged in a passionate love affair with soprano Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard). How this happened needs no explanation. In this city celebrity itself is enough to bring star-crossed couples together. With the tabloids and paparazzi covering it all, Henry and Ann deepen their relationship and get married. But Henry is adjusting to the idea that such a luminous woman would love a self-loathing troll like himself. Before long Ann gives birth to a daughter, Annette. Fatherhood doesn’t prevent Henry from diving into heavy-drinking and emotional rages, which climax while the couple is caught in a storm at sea. After a fatal tragedy, Henry has to face a guilty conscience even as Annette shows a powerful talent for singing. When he begins to tour Annette as an infant sensation, Henry seems to be running away from the ghosts of his past, a past that could easily bubble up to expose him.

“Annette” opens with the spirit of a modern musical, as a band performs in a studio and Driver, Cotillard and other cast walk out into L.A. streets singing “So May We Start,” an energetic prologue that sets the sonic tone of the film. Yet when it comes to Leos Carax, we are never in for just some normal film. Ever since his debut with “Boy Meets Girl” as a 24-year-old director, Carax has been one of those last filmmakers carrying the torch of defying conventional cinema, through titles like “Pola X” and the acclaimed “Holy Motors.” He is an heir to the surrealists, or to those mad creators like Alejandro Jodorowsky, who chase visions and not crass, film school-trained commercialism. “Annette” continues a fascination with the theatrical, or alluringly stagey, that Carax experimented with in “Holy Motors,” where he tossed away a coherent plot for a mix of moments where he played different personas. “Annette” is coherent, but still vibrantly free-form. The film never has the look of a heightened musical piece with massive choreography. Carax imagines the story as if a saga like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were being sung with atmospheric moments, in the grit of downtown L.A. or up in the woodsy enclosures of the opulent Hollywood Hills. Of course it’s fair to say Pitt and Jolie’s romance never featured murder and singing wunderkinds. 

Like all great cinematic enfant terribles, Carax celebrates a genre while subverting it. Only in his version of a musical would Driver and Cotillard sing the melancholic “We Love Each Other So Much” while Henry performs oral sex on Ann. And while the cinematic technique soars, this is not a love story made to provoke swooning. It’s dark and complex. Henry loves Ann, but love is also encaging his sense of provocative freedom. He becomes bored onstage, his audience singing back pleads for Henry to get back into his politically incorrect, insulting act. Instead he lashes out at the audience. The creation of Henry is so vivid, with Driver dressed in a bathrobe and loafers, that this is probably very close to some comic performing somewhere in those late night corners of Hollywood. Ann meanwhile is famous for performing operatic death scenes onstage. The shock comic and the classical diva, what could go wrong? But something does and it’s purely internal. Henry instantly loves Annette when she’s born, in one of the year’s most haunting delivery room moments in a movie. Fatherhood alas only contributes to the raging clash of feelings inside Henry.

Carax does stage some grand sequences that are operatic in scope, like a fateful night on a ship during a massive storm, where Henry and Ann fight with giant, surreal waves in the background. Wooden, baby Annette is so well-designed we do believe this doll is terrified amid the chaos. Later a football stadium sequence where she is expected to sing before a TV audience of millions has a hallucinatory energy. Carax understands that great melodrama isn’t necessarily about scope, but about the boiling emotions. Henry being driven to murder, or the session pianist, played by Simon Helberg, who later becomes a conductor but pines for Ann, it is all much more riveting than elaborate costumes. “Leos has a very strong vision, what you see is that,” Helberg told Entertainment Voice. “You don’t see it in any way diluted or focus-grouped. I’m guessing people who are on the other end of things, financing it or distributing it, that could present challenges, because you’re working with an artist who has a very strong vision. For me that is ideal.”

The music by Sparks is visceral but never pretentious. Their pop-rock sounds are something rather Gothic, with lyrics that range from the simple to the philosophical. Some numbers you won’t be able to hum along to as in an Andrew Lloyd Webber production. Driver and Cotillard take on the challenge of performing this music with lots of gusto. Driver in particular carries the bulk of the opera and achieves in some live moments what 2012’s bloated version of “Les Miserables” failed at. He truly performs the emotion in the words (he’s also a better singer). Never does he feel false or stagey. Possibly it works so well because he’s playing someone so human. These are not characters making history or dancing like giant cats. Henry and Ann are just flawed, famous and in the tabloids, but tragically flawed humans. “We had a lot to do. All the action, I had to sing while swimming, while lying down, while smoking, while taking a shower (laughs). All those actions affect the sound, so the training involved all these actions so I could understand how the sounds travel inside my body,” Cotillard told Entertainment Voice about the challenge of her and Driver singing live. “I had to find the right balance between the singing that should be in tune, and good enough to be heard, and the actions, emotions. But it was very exciting to sing live. That was one part of the project that I was really, really excited about.” Their home isn’t a Wagnerian set, but the typical wealthy home you drive by in the outlying parts of Los Angeles.

Even behind those lavish homes there are violent tempers and jealous outbursts. Henry is willing to burn down his happiness because being loved is somehow creating the opposite feeling. Little Annette is who will pay the real price, like many children when it comes to the consequences of their parents’ actions. Part of Carax’s daring is that he encompasses these universal themes within an original musical about doomed celebrities. Don’t let the complexity of the emotions deter you from escaping with “Annette.” As a cinematic experience you won’t see anything like it for the rest of 2021. It is a strange, dreamlike work of art, with moments that veer from nightmarish to romantic, using Sparks’s music as the quirky, enrapturing guide. Even the more challenging passages are exciting to behold. In a time where a lot of the box office is ruled by factory products, here is a rock opera hard to categorize, and for which we should be grateful. “I need to work with directors for whom it’s vital to do cinema, to do films,” said Cotillard, “I felt lucky and I felt welcomed in his world which is so rich and very intimate. When you enter a Leos Carax movie you know you’re going to be surprised. You know you won’t expect what’s coming next.”

Annette” begins streaming Aug. 20 on Amazon Prime Video.