Even the best musicals often have a fever-dream quality to them. People burst into song without warning, expressing themselves in fits of choreographed madness and gazing into the middle distance while crooning bits of exposition. The Leos Carax-directed Annette — co-written by Carax and Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks, with music by the Sparks brothers — is less fever dream and more full-blown avant-garde delirium.
Well-received at last month’s Cannes Film Festival (Carax landed the Best Director award), Annette is the French director’s first English-language film, and comes on the heels of Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers, a deep dive into the prolific pop outfit’s career. Starring Adam Driver as provocative star stand-up comic Henry McHenry and Marion Cotillard as Ann Defrasnoux, the famous operatic singer he falls in love with, the film is part rock opera and part arthouse fantasy.
Outlandish, ambitious and much too long, Annette was reportedly originally conceived as a concept album — and it feels like it, meandering its way into ponderous territory as it studies celebrity, identity and obsession. At its center are some great songs from the genuinely brilliant Mael brothers, as well as a physically intense performance from Driver, who — given his Sondheim moment at the end of 2019’s A Marriage Story — we all knew had a proper musical in him. Driver, Cotillard and the rest truly commit to their performances here, as they must. What would be the point otherwise? Carax is known for his challenging approach (see also: 2012’s Holy Motors, 1999’s Pola X), and this is perhaps the darkest and most peculiar musical you’ll ever see.
The film opens with the catchy, fourth-wall-breaking “So May We Start,” with the Mael brothers in the studio and Carax behind the board. They ultimately march out into the street, joining Driver and Cotillard in a Greek-chorus moment that establishes a lot of promise. From there, the musical never bothers to mask its exposition. The accompanist for Ann — played by The Big Bang Theory’s diminutive Simon Helberg, dwarfed by the towering Driver in their scenes together — introduces himself by singing “I’m an accompanist for Ann.” Driver and Cotillard sing “we love each other so much” in unison during a cunnilingus scene (one of the stranger but more interestingly shot sex scenes in recent memory). The film ventures into Eraserhead terrain in its second act when the couple conceives a child, the titular Annette, a freaky little puppet baby somewhat reminiscent of the Japanese Monchhichi stuffed-monkey dolls of the 1970s and ’80s. I can’t stress this enough: The puppet child, which looks unsettling, is played completely straight. Is the baby really a puppet, or does Driver’s character simply see her as a puppet — some symptom of his debilitating narcissism? There are shades of David Lynch here, yes, but also of Charlie Kaufman and his flair for absurdist symbolism.
Annette takes a number of bleak turns that I won’t spoil for you. Suffice it to say Henry McHenry’s megalomania poisons everything and everyone around him. But Annette is a film of too many ideas. Some of them are great, and some of them are silly; some of them are executed brilliantly, while others are fumbled. When it’s good — the climactic third-act duet, for instance, or the post-credits sequence that has nothing to do with the plot but is a remarkable feat — it’s very good. But when it’s not good, it’s a complete mess, an overstuffed, grandiose melodrama that stretches on and on.
Variety’s Peter Debruge has suggested that perhaps Annette is ahead of its time. Indeed, that label has been applied to Sparks’ music more than once since the band’s mid-’70s heyday, and if nothing else, Annette is refreshing in its willingness to just absolutely go for it. We need cinema that takes some big swings. Just be prepared to groan your way through Carax and the Maels’ misses.