It’s easy to make fun of movie marketing campaigns which tout the “visionary”, “genius” and even “brilliantly twisted” minds of the artists behind them. But in the case of Cannes opener Annette, that wouldn’t be too far from the truth. That’s as much because director Leos Carax and writer-musicians Sparks are visionaries as it is because Annette is so clearly the product of their minds alone.
Yet though the French indie darling and eccentric pop gods have been described as a “match made in heaven”, Annette is interesting in large part because they’re not. It’s in the inherent tension between Carax’s earnest melodrama and the Mael brothers’ artful self-awareness that something springs out.
Annette stars Adam Driver as Henry McHenry, a shock jock comedian whose influence on his devoted audience is waning. Marion Cotillard stars as soprano extraordinaire Ann Defrasnoux, with Simon Helberg supporting as The Conductor, who wants to be much more than Ann’s accompanist. From a few minutes in the plot takes numerous wild turns, so not much more can be said without spoiling. It’s not a surprise the trailer is largely made up of footage from the first few minutes.
But those castings alone tell us quite a lot about the self-aware direction Annette wants to take us in. Driver as a performatively aggressive contrarian evokes his own angry parts, from Kylo Ren to Charlie in Marriage Story. That he’s also an ex-soldier surely affects his stunning performance too, though his special thanks in the credits go only to real-world comedians Chris Rock and Bill Burr. Comedy and anger are never far apart.
Meanwhile, Helberg’s down-on-his-luck pianist wants to be taken more seriously and lead his own concerts. If that isn’t a subtle wink to an actor who spent a decade on The Big Bang Theory and is now in a Carax Cannes opener, it’s a very obvious blink. Cotillard on the other hand is doing her own thing somewhat, though predictably well. Her casting injects a Frenchness which makes Annette feel transatlantic, uniting Carax’s heavier vision with Sparks’ playfulness.
And they are two slightly different artistic approaches, even if Annette largely manages to make them feel like one. In much the same way David Byrne’s American Utopia saw Spike Lee insert himself onto Byrne’s typical idiosyncrasies, Annette is evidently the result of Carax listening to lots of Sparks and wanting to do something about it. And the Maels watching a lot of Carax and wanting to do something about it.
Which is a roundabout way of saying Annette is very good, but certainly won’t be liked by all. It’s an intentionally lofty, frequently absurd melodrama with twists and turns that will alienate as much of its audience as keep it. Every scene is a couple of minutes too long and every song has one too many verses. One dream sequence had me wishing the movie went in an entirely different direction to the one it ultimately went in.
Even so – or maybe because of all that – you’d be an idiot to miss it. As wildly unpredictable for its story as it is predictable that Sparks and Carax would produce something so chaotic, Annette is a full-throated epic rock opera as well as a satire on much of modern society and celebrity culture.
After the year we’ve all had that might sound like a lot, but if it’s a pretty astounding emotional experience you want from the movies when you return, Annette is quite the statement.