Annette is a film thats likely best experienced rather than described.
Anyone familiar with the work of French director Leos Carax, best known for the surreal Denis Lavant fantasy Holy Motors, probably already knew that. But tack on the fact that the script and music was written by Sparks duo Ron and Russell Mael, known for their sophisticated, theatrical and irreverent songs, and Annette, starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, adds up to something that defies explanation. This postmodern pop opera is wildly unique, often maddening and sometimes even illuminating. Oh, and theres a little wooden puppet baby who can sing, but well get to that later.
While I cant say I have anything resembling a grasp on Annette or that I even enjoyed most of the journey, its also something that has lingered. And the more distance I have from Annette, the more I admire its unabashedly grand oddness.
The Los Angeles-set story is centered on an artistic couple and their passionate, volatile relationship. Driver is Henry McHenry, a caustic and provocative stand-up and performance artist in a green boxers robe, who, despite his intellectual superiority and disdain for most everything, does seem to have a loyal fan base who genuinely enjoys his hostile comedy. And he does like one thing, it turns out: Cotillards Ann Defrasnoux, an opera singer who he’s recently started dating.
Theyre a mismatched pair. She is grace, saving her audience every night. Hes the devil who kills his. But theyre in love and in lust and together they become a media sensation on par with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, whose every move is covered by the winkingly cheap Showbizz News. And soon, theyve welcomed a child, baby Annette, who has large ears and a wooden frame. Yet for all her artificiality, baby Annette is also disarmingly infant-like in her movements. And baby Annette has an extraordinary talent that manifests after a tragic night on a boat.
Theres another character, too maybe the only truly likable character in Simon Helbergs funny and heartsick accompanist-turned-conductor who provides some reliable levity amid all the tumult.
Even though Cotillard (magnificent, as always) is certainly the co-lead, this is very much Drivers show and he is breathtaking. Is there a more disarming actor working today? Here he fully embraces his animalistic physicality to create an imposing and dangerous character who you can only really love when seen through Anns eyes. This becomes a bit of a problem later on for reasons I wont get into, but even if you dont like Henry McHenry, you cant take your eyes off of him.
Annette is mostly sung, by the way. And although the music doesnt sound like an opera, its spirit more closely resembles that form than a musical. Like other Sparks and Carax creations, its just its own thing. The artificiality and winking sarcasm can even be grating at times, which, you get the sense, is the point. What the filmmakers have called the projects multilayered irony can be challenging and alienating. And yet there are moments of breathtaking transcendence in both the filmmaking and music, alongside extraordinary acting and puppetry work.
Will you exit with any sort of elevated understanding of artists or love or tragedy? Maybe not, but, again, this thing called Annette has a way of taking up residence in your mind, whether you like it or not. If you’re even the slightest bit intrigued, you should let Carax and the Maels take you on this bizarre journey.
But don’t get me wrong: Annette is a conundrum. And maybe thats good enough.
Annette, an Amazon Studios release in limited release Friday and streaming Aug. 20, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language, some nudity and sexual content. Running time: 140 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr