Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 5th, 2021
Annette (Leos Carax, 2021) 1 out of 4 stars.
In a world where many products of the Hollywood studio system are hard to distinguish the one from the other, it can often come as a breath of fresh air when a director strikes out on her or his own, delivering an idiosyncratic work that breaks the mold. Such has certainly been the recurring theme in the career of French filmmaker Leos Carax, whose last movie, the 2012 Holy Motors, was a delightfully playful meditation on art (specifically, cinema) and identity that defied convention and was every inch an ambitious project worthy of careful dissection. Sadly, that is very much not the case with his new film, Annette, which bears the trappings of originality while trafficking in a clichéd story whose underlying unpleasantness subverts the superficial joys of the construct. It’s a spiritless rock musical in search of a raison d’être.
Adam Driver (Marriage Story) and Marion Cotillard (Allied) star as Henry and Ann, a mismatched romantic couple whose seemingly storybook marriage goes quickly awry. He’s a standup comedian and she an opera singer, and when the film begins, they are both at relatively equal levels of success. Before long, however, Henry’s heavy drinking plunges him into a downward spiral, just as Ann’s career takes off even more. Soon, they are violently at odds with each other, no matter the baby girl they have just brought into the world. She’s the titular Annette, and the abuse and exploitation she will eventually endure form the spine of the movie’s second half. The wages of sin may not necessarily be death, but they are severe, and the script adheres strictly to this moral lesson, even if it is long (so long) in coming. There is nothing new under the sun (hey, why stop at just a few clichés), so expect what you expect and it will happen.
To be fair, Annette is not played by a human child, but is instead a not-quite-lifelike (think “uncanny valley”) puppet, which offers at least something unusual in this otherwise depressing tale of alcoholism and megalomania. Would that the music, by Sparks, were able to lift the narrative above its shortcomings, but besides the bouncy opener, there’s not a lot to recommend in the soundtrack (not that songs need to bounce to be memorable or meaningful). True, it’s somewhat interesting to see Driver singing “We Love Each Other So Much” as he performs cunnilingus on Cotillard (she sings, too, mid-coitus), but the situation is far less artistically fascinating than one might think. It’s just simulated sex, a trope of its own.
The rock musical, itself, is also hardly a novel art form, whether on stage or screen, nor are just plain musicals, sans rock, tout court. Neither are dramas about suffering souls, of all persuasions, undone by demons, internal and/or external. And so, what we are left with is much ado about not much at all. Add in a rather pointless supporting character played by Simon Helberg (Florence Foster Jenkins), and there’s even less, still. Which is especially unfortunate given the obvious full efforts by all involved, Cotillard and Driver (who recorded their songs live, while acting) top among the list. Adding insult to injury, the movie is a bore, despite its tricks and attempts at sleight of hand. Poor Annette … you deserve far better than the parents you got, both creative and biological. May you grow into a real girl, one day. Oh, wait, you do, at the end. To no avail.