The French filmmaker Leos Carax is the definition of all-in. His movies, which he’s been making since the 1980s, are careening vehicles for big, audacious performances, surreal visual spectacle, and sometimes jarring leaps of imagination. They’re also, almost always, engaged with the social issues of their time. In 1986, Mauvais Sang, a sci-fi parable starring Juliette Binoche, overtly referenced the AIDS crisis. 1991’s Les Amants du Pont Neuf paired Binoche with the one-of-a-kind French actor, mime, and acrobat Denis Lavant in an over-the-top melodrama about addiction, homelessness, and mutually destructive amour fou. And 2012’s Holy Motors—well, I’m not exactly sure what that one was about, but it followed Lavant’s enigmatic character through a single day of dizzying transformations, from hit man to motion-capture stunt performer to the father of a family of chimpanzees, and it was one of the best films of that year, a perceptual roller coaster that left the viewer’s brain abuzz with thrilling if hard-to-sort-out ideas about the ravages of capitalism and the instability of personal identity.
Nine years later we have Annette, a thoroughly banana cakes musical romance with story and songs by Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who make up the veteran music duo Sparks (recently and delightfully showcased in a documentary by Edgar Wright). In the place of his longtime muse Lavant, Carax has cast an equally if very differently charismatic actor, this time a global movie star: Adam Driver, the hunky cad of Girls, the glowering space brat of the latest Star Wars trilogy, the volatile wall-punching ex-husband of Marriage Story. And in the place of the serenely luminous Binoche is the serenely luminous Marion Cotillard as Ann Desfranoux, a world-famous opera singer who holds audiences in thrall with ethereal vocal performances that inevitably end in her character’s onstage death.
Ann’s lover and eventually husband, played by Driver, is a superstar standup comedian named Henry McHenry, a shock-jock type who comes onstage in a ratty bathrobe and aggressively mocks his audience’s expectation that he make them laugh. In a none-too-subtle commentary on celebrity culture and the abjection of fandom, this approach makes them laugh uproariously. And in a variation I’ve never seen on the often-revisited genre of the fourth-wall-breaking musical, Henry’s audience occasionally bursts into song themselves, chiding the bad-boy comic for his unorthodox antics on and off the stage. When they’re performing, Henry kills and Ann dies, a metaphor that is again hammered home with a little too much force.
Like Jean-Luc Godard, a director who is clearly an influence (and in whose King Lear the auteur played a small role), Carax likes to double-cross his audience. His movies often jolt us out of the cozy relationship we’re used to having with movie screens: Normally, we settle into a seat, events unfold before us, and we passively absorb them, identifying with the characters as though the story were our own. Annette upends that relationship from the beginning as it opens on the group musical number “So May We Start?” with the director, his daughter, the Mael brothers, and the entire cast first appearing in a recording studio and then marching out into the streets of Los Angeles for a rousing song in which, addressing the camera directly, they ask the audience’s permission to entertain us—though much of what happens for the next two hours and 20 minutes will also confound us and try our patience.
The songs in Annette—which is virtually a sung-through musical, with only brief patches of dialogue that recall opera recitative—are hypnotic without being catchy. One exception, “We Love Each Other So Much,” the central love duet that becomes a recurring motif, is essentially a dirgelike repetition of the title phrase; while not exactly a feat of lyrical invention, it captures the dreamy self-absorption and the creeping menace of the first stages of romantic obsession. Henry and Ann’s sex scenes are a far cry from the typical erotic-thriller-style shots of sweaty bodies in a backlit clinch: When they are seen in bed together they have a spectral and transparent quality, like a pair of embracing ghosts. (After the hype coming out of Cannes about Driver’s midcunnilingus singing solo, I was a bit disappointed it amounted to nothing more than one throwaway shot. I was hoping for a whole oral-sex aria.)
Bursting into song while going down on one’s girlfriend is a funny idea, and for all of the would-be tragic sweep of its larger story, Annette is full of such expectation-defying laughs. In a later scene, Henry’s rival for Ann’s love, an accompanist-turned-conductor (the musician and actor Simon Helberg, marvelously underplaying a too-small role), keeps breaking off his direct address to the audience to get back to the orchestra he’s trying to lead, apologizing to us for the interruption. Helberg’s character, called only the Conductor, plays a key part in the story’s development, yet we learn nearly nothing about him and his thwarted love for Ann until an hour in—one of many issues Annette has with unfolding a balanced or coherent story. But when the movie suddenly introduces an ingeniously designed series of puppets as the glamorous couple’s baby daughter, Annette, and then takes off on a new track involving her rise to world fame as a child singing phenomenon, it becomes clear Carax is not a director for whom either balance or coherence are virtues.
A bigger problem is that we never learn much about the motivations or inner life of Cotillard’s Ann, a character who veers close to being a manic pixie dream diva. This is in part because, in the scenes that attempt to convey the unique power Ann holds over audiences, she is seen only from afar as her voice is dubbed by a professional opera singer. (In the more intimate, non-operatic numbers, Cotillard does her own singing and has a pleasantly lilting voice.) Driver’s stage appearances, on the other hand, are filmed with great vividness; they are unpleasant to watch, especially as his character lapses into bitterness and borderline alcoholism, but they are tours de force of acting. Henry McHenry is a character whose conduct we despise even as we keep trying to understand what makes him tick, but at many moments, Driver’s Brando-like intensity is all that keeps us from recoiling from him. In his last scene, opposite an extraordinary child actor named Devyn McDowell, Driver gets the chance to play in a quieter, more introspective register. He’s a powerhouse performer (and a surprisingly expressive singer), but the story leaves his character’s contours too blurred for us to experience Henry’s final fate as anything more than a flat morality play.
Meanwhile, Carax’s camera does all it can to erase the difference between reality, fantasy, and the supernatural. A TV news snippet glimpsed in the middle of the film suggests that Henry has been accused of sexual assault by six different women—but given that this twist seems to drop out of the story, did Ann merely dream it as she napped in a limo on the way to her next gig? Many scenes suggest that harm is about to come to the tiny Annette, through either the carelessness or malice of her parents, yet she always appears intact in the next scene, grown a little bigger each time, her jointed limbs and felt-textured flesh plainly visible. (Despite these deliberately artificial touches, the puppetry, with some digital animation mixed in, eerily evokes the presence of a real and very particular little girl.)
Roger Ebert wrote wonderfully of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf that “it has grand gestures and touching moments of truth, perched precariously on a foundation of horsefeathers.” That phrase could be borrowed to describe Annette, a movie that left me visually and aurally dazzled, and at times emotionally moved, without ever quite either entertaining me or making me think too hard. This isn’t a movie for everyone. Even Carax enthusiasts will likely agree that it’s overindulgent, too big for its britches thematically (cool story, bro, but what is it actually about?), and a good 20 minutes too long. But films this original and irreverent are a near-extinct species in the show business ecosystem of 2021. If you sometimes go to the movies to feel unsettled, perplexed, and amused—not to mention get a peek at an often-shirtless and always-brooding Adam Driver—Annette might be the weird one you’ve been waiting for.