“Annette” is a musical about the unfortunate romance between two artists, a description that suggests an obvious relationship with “La La Land” and “A Star is Born”. Not for playing algorithms or anything, but if you enjoyed these movies, you will probably like this one too.
Or maybe not. While more or less part of the enduring genre of the backstage musical, “Annette” aims to be something darker and stranger than yet another fearful melodrama about the entanglements of ambition and love. It has some modern operas in its DNA – a garish strand of violence, madness and demonic passion that is reminiscent of Vienna or Berlin before World War II as well as classic Hollywood. Instead of breaking out into song or dance at appropriate moments, the characters pour their tortured consciousness through lyrics that are never as simple as they sound.
“We love each other so much.” That’s the chorus that stays in your head when you look at the tragic story of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), a performance artist and opera soprano whose marriage is catnip to the tabloid media . Their love is the premise of the film and its central dramatic problem. It’s also a red herring in a way. The sexual bliss and emotional relationship that fill the first act give way to anger and alienation, but this isn’t just a love story with a sad ending. It is more of a case study, a critique of romantic mythology on which its appeal seems to depend.
“Annette” is a collaboration between Ron and Russell Mael – better known as the long-lived, pigeonhole band Sparks – and director Leos Carax. “Annette” begins with an overture in the key of anti-realism. The Mael brothers who wrote both the script and the songs are in the recording studio. Carax and his daughter Nastya are sitting behind the mixer. The cast and crew take to the streets, and Driver and Cotillard slowly get drawn into their characters. He puts on a flowing dark wig and then a motorcycle helmet. She gets into a black SUV. You are now Henry and Ann. The boundary between artificiality and reality is clearly marked for us; for these two it will be blurry, permeable, and treacherous.
Carax, whose feverishly imaginative features include “Pola X” and “Holy Motors”, has never used the naturalism that most filmmakers use as a guide. The world of “Annette” has some familiar place names (including Tokyo, London and Rio, although most of it is set in Los Angeles), but it is a land beyond the literal, a product of set design, dream logic and hallucinatory expressionism. The fact that the characters sing more than they talk – even during sex – is in some ways the least weird thing about the film, which casts a series of mechanical puppets in the title role.
Annette is the name of Ann and Henry’s daughter, and to explain her centrality to the narrative, one could risk a spoiler or two. Not that the plot is terribly complicated or surprising; it unfolds with the relentless dynamic of a nightmare. First comes love, then marriage, then Annette comes in the stroller. What follows is drunkenness and murder; Shipwreck, ghosts and guilt.
But let’s go back to the beginning, Henry and Ann in their mutual enchantment. While everyone has a thriving career, it is Henry who gets the most attention. It’s partly charisma, partly narcissism and completely in line with his identity as an artist. He is the star and writer of “The Ape of God,” a one-man show (with backing singers) that deals with the kind of bellicose self-expression that popular culture sometimes confuses with honesty.
Henry storms onto the stage in a hooded bathrobe that opens to reveal tight boxer shorts and an impressively sculpted torso, preaching to the audience with intimate, often disgusting confessions. Shame and bravery are the changing currents of his deed, tensed by a hyper-articulate, cynical self-confidence. The audience laughs even though Henry isn’t telling jokes, but rather challenges the public to take his aggression seriously.
Is he an internal critic of toxic masculinity, or an exceptionally attractive example of it? That may be a distinction without a distinction. With Henry, as with some of his hypothetical real-life analogies, it is difficult to separate art from artist because the defiance of such a separation is the whole point of his art.
Ann is a different kind of artist and a less insistent presence in film. She seems at times to step back in the shadow of her husband’s larger, purer personality. This can seem like a failure of the filmmakers’ imagination, who portray them as the object of Henry’s lust, jealousy, and resentment rather than a creative force in its own right. She has more in common with the Cotillard characters in “Public Enemies” and “Inception” than with those in “Rust and Bone” or “La Vie en Rose”.
This imbalance turns out to be crucial in this film’s indictment of the cruelty excused in the name of the genius, his relentless dissection of masculine claims. This is less of a love story than a monster movie about a man unable to grasp the full reality of other people including his own wife and child. (The “not all men” objection is embodied by Simon Helberg, who plays a conductor who is Henry’s occasional rival for Ann’s affection.) The consequences are fatal, and the final reckoning is as devastating as anything I’ve come across in a recent one Saw the movie. musical or not.
Driver, whose so far best roles as restless men in the theater were (see also “Girls” and “Marriage Story”), wasted no energy to make Henry sympathetic or to exaggerate his villains. Instead, he’s completely believable, not because you understand Henry’s psychological makeup, but precisely because you can’t. His megalomania distorts everything. He’s not larger than life, but he thinks he is, and Driver’s performance perfectly matches that contradiction.
“Annette” masters her own paradoxes. It’s a highly cerebral, formally complex film about unbridled emotions. A work of art that is driven by a skepticism about where art comes from and why we value it the way we do. A fantastic film that challenges some of our culture’s most cherished fantasies. Totally unreal and absolutely true.
Rated R for Sturm und Drang. Running time: 2 hours 19 minutes. In theaters. On Amazon, August 20.