The first act of Leos Carax’s Cannes opener (the festival, not the utensil), is deceptive. This is not because it opens with a meta musical number calling upon itself to begin. Instead, the first act is deceptive because it is, in fact, good. The introduction is brimming with strong ideas, fascinating performances and good music. The following acts of “Annette,” however, are an intriguing mess.
Watching “Annette,” you may get the sense that a talented screenwriter wrote the first twenty pages, then filed those pages into a crude AI bot and tasked it with finishing the narrative … as well as creating the musical numbers. The result is confusing, and filled with characters and emotions that don’t quite feel human.
Things go quite smoothly until the titular child is born. The opening number is exciting, comedic, catchy, and easy to follow — a rarity within the film. It also provides the necessary hint to viewers that the film they are about to watch is abnormal, and that there should be no preliminary expectations.
The following scenes establish the dichotomy between Adam Driver’s Henry McHenry and Marion Cotillard’s Ann that makes their romance so mysterious. Henry is a brute stand-up comedian who fills his routine with passion, hate, tenderness, and most evidently, his own ego. His act almost plays as a fascinating hybrid of different Andy Kaufman and Bo Burnham routines.
Ann’s opera performance, on the other hand, is a lovely, graceful meditation on death. These characters are nearly opposites, but evidently have a passionate love for one another. This strange, confusing romance fuels the intrigue in Driver and Cotillard singing, “we love each other so much” with contradicting expressions of profound indifference.
Soon the movie takes a sharp turn into its own descent: Annette is born. Annette is played by a wooden puppet that is eerily reminiscent of Chucky with a glowing heart. No one acknowledges this. Is it because she is the product of two fame-craving celebrities? Is it because Henry is so hungry for control and power that his daughter is literally a puppet? Perhaps, but the symbolism is not nearly worth the emotional toll this doll has on the film.
As one of the four main characters, Annette and her wooden face is completely deprived of emotion. The doll is closer to a punchline than a character when her disturbing features appear on screen. How is an audience to empathize with a character that cannot speak, emote, or change for the majority of the film? Her entrance marks the film’s transition from smooth sailing to the waters literally becoming rocky for Henry and Ann. Similar to Henry McHenry’s arc, the movie loses itself in its own ego.
If the film didn’t already place a large enough weight on its emotional value by making Annette wooden, it insists upon smothering emotional dialogue with mediocre singing of uninspired tunes. The tragic reality of this film is that Adam Driver is not an incredible singer, so forcing him to deliver every line multiple times through song creates an emotional vacuum. The music drudges along, failing to be particularly moving or clever, with most lyrics simply being a repetition of a single line — sometimes for minutes on end.
To their credit, Simon Helberg, Marion Cotillard and namely Adam Driver do quite an incredible job with what they are given. Driver projects a primitive sense of animosity and passion which is essential to McHenry’s fiery persona. Meanwhile, Cotillard and Helberg perfectly undermine his energy with their grace.
The film plays with interesting themes and explores them through the lens of dazzling cinematography. While Carax’s surrealism is not necessarily suited for the furthering of the actual story, cinematographer Caroline Champetier delivers stunning, dreamlike visuals that fight hard to hold together the otherwise wild film.
By the third act, many will find themselves puzzled over how this 140 minute film has not come to a conclusion. And the conclusion itself does not redeem the film’s convoluted narrative. While there is certainly a commendable amount of symbolism, and a raw ambition in the ideas Carax is going for, there is a condemning lack of emotion or clarity in “Annette.”
Instead of clarity, most will exit the theater with a sense of confused wonder — wonder which inspires questions like, what did it all mean? Is Carax a genius or a hack? And, should I have spent ten bucks on this?
If you want to see a gorgeous, heart-breaking musical about the conflicting interests of fame and love, rewatch “La La Land.” If you want to watch a satire on American celebrity featuring singing puppets, check out “Team America.” If you want to watch the bizarre lovechild of these things under Carax’s surreal, Lynchian vision, “Annette” will hit just the spot!