I’ll be honest — I wasn’t particularly excited to watch Annette. When I first saw the trailer, I was intrigued, but after reading some reviews and seeing some reactions about how abstract and bizarre it is, my enthusiasm faded. Apart from the two leads, there wasn’t much draw me in to the movie. But I guess my desire to watch any Adam Driver performance won out over any doubts I had, because I found myself pressing play on the 140-minute hypnotic rock opera.
Annette is a wild ride, if that wasn’t already clear. It’s ultimate ending is incredibly effective, but there’s so much in between that may or may not work for certain audiences. It opens in a recording studio showing the director, Leos Carax, and the writers, Ron and Russell Mal of the band Sparks, sitting down to record the opening number (the Male wrote both the screenplay and the music). They begin singing and recording, but then head out of the studio to the setting of the movie. My immediate thought was that it felt like a music video. On the way out of the studio, we leave the writers and director and begin to get acclimated with our three stars: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg in his supporting, but significant role. They presumably start out as their real life, actor selves before they get into costume and head off to where their characters are supposed to be at the beginning of the movie.
The song, “Now May We Start” is, as my wife put it while she was walking through the room as the movie began, extremely groovy. I’ve basically had it on repeat in the couple of days since my screening. It does a good job of setting the stage for two things: the non-stop singing and the meta way the movie treats the audience, which is one of its biggest themes. There’s a line in the song that goes, “But where’s the stage you wonder? Is it outside, or it it within?” It’s the perfect question to ask of the audience, because so much of the movie is about famous people and how the culture interacts with them.
Henry McHenry (Driver) is a stand-up comedian. But his stand-up is less Dave Chappelle, George Carlin, or Jerry Seinfeld and more cynical Bo Burnham. He purports to be honest on stage, but it’s not in an intimate or self-effacing manner. He thrives on the attention, the popularity, and of course, the money. He portrays this persona onstage, and then goes back to his everyday life where he is a drunken closeted monster.
Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard), on the other hand, is a gentle, yet still popular opera singer. There is a real breadth of talent on display from her, as opposed to Henry’s egomaniacal way of presenting himself to the public… So naturally, they’re drawn to each other. We’re given brief mock TMZ or Access Hollywood-style interludes with updates on their new and flourishing relationship. “They’re a couple!” “They’re getting married!” “She’s pregnant!” It’s these types of meta moments that really make our culture hold the mirror up and wonder why we care so much about the exploits of people like these.
Their baby, Annette, is born, but there’s the idea that you shouldn’t have a baby to save your marriage for a reason. Annette’s existence (not Annette herself) drives a wedge into Henry and Ann’s already shaky relationship. He’s the jealous, possessive type who sees Ann’s relationship with The Accompanist (Helberg), who plays the piano at her shows, as threatening, and Ann constantly doubts Henry’s integrity and dreams of him being outed as the latest casualty of #MeToo. There was never much trust to begin with.
You might have seen it already if you are in film circles on various social media, but baby Annette is not a typical baby. I’m not going to spoil in what way she is atypical, but it reveals a lot about Henry and Ann as parents, partners, and people. There are some genuinely frightening moments as a result of this and some of the imagery would be comfortably at home in a horror movie, but it’s effective at a high level. Basically, this movie is a much less straightforward, much darker version of La La Land. And it worked for me.
I think the biggest reason this worked is because you can feel a vision come through the screen. Nothing is this weird or this experimental just for the sake of it. After the upbeat and catchy “Now May We Start” opens the film, Sparks brings in darker and sometimes creepy refrains that are performed basically non-stop throughout. “We Love Each Other So Much” in particular works on a number of levels, and it’s great to understand all the layers once the movie is finished and you have the full picture. I’d never seen a Carax film before this, but I understand he’s known to be singular in his vision. That completely comes across in this case.
The performances are what drive the movie, though. We’re treated to less of Cotillard than I would have hoped, but her role is oddly reminiscent of that in Inception in that she’s largely there to play second fiddle to her A-list star male lead. Driver is predictably great. He has The Last Duel and House of Gucci still to come this year, so the man might deserve three Oscar nominations when it’s all said and done. He’s that good here. And Helberg’s performance has me wishing he didn’t spend so much time stuck on The Big Bang Theory. Yeah, yeah, I know he’s financially set for life and then some thanks to the sitcom, but if movies like Annette and A Serious Man have taught us anything, it’s that Simon Helberg is too good of an actor to be left on a sitcom for so long. There’s one particular scene in Annette where an unbroken take circles him as he gives a soliloquy, and it just seemed like the perfect Oscar nomination clip. I truly hope this movie gets some recognition in that respect.
Annette has a lot to say in a lot of ways. For such a seemingly inaccessibly film, so much of its metaphor and meaning is right there on the screen and easy for you to uncover. Its incredible soundtrack will keep the movie in your mind casually, but its haunting last scene will keep it in your heart longterm.