Ann: How did your show go?
Henry: I killed them. And your gig?
Ann: I saved them.
This movie is not easy to talk about without spoiling things that would be much better experienced in the theater (or, in a couple of weeks, streaming) unspoiled, but I’ll do my best. I’ve only seen one other film of the director, Leos Carax — his 2012 film HOLY MOTORS, which I loved (it was on my Best of 2012 list) but which was also strange and hard to describe, like ANNETTE. He has a wonderful sense of the absurd and unreal that I found really compelling to watch, and his lead actor in that film (Denis Levant) was really good at grounding material that, in other hands, could have been truly ridiculous and unwatchable.
ANNETTE is playing with a lot of ideas, perhaps chief among them the notion of fame and how it can corrupt and consume. It is partially a love story, but not entirely, and this love story is not a “feel good” one. It is also a musical (or, perhaps more accurately, a rock opera), with music and lyrics by Ron and Russell Mael of my beloved Sparks (who also have a story credit and are having quite the moment this summer, with this movie and Edgar Wright’s documentary about them, THE SPARKS BROTHERS). But it’s not a song-song-song musical. A lot of the music is sung dialogue — a bit like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, though unlike that movie, not *all* of the dialogue is sung.
The movie starts rather charmingly with the opening number “So May We Start” (with what seems to be a clever play on “mais oui, mais oui, now start”), starting in a recording studio and transitioning into a rather breathtaking one-take tracking shot (reminiscent of the accordion scene in HOLY MOTORS). This is a very self-aware “you are about to watch a piece of fiction” introduction to the film, and it features Sparks, Leos Carax, stars Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and Simon Helberg, and several others, seemingly as themselves just getting pumped to have a good time and entertain you. And then we segue into the story.
Adam Driver plays Henry, a provocative insult comic. Marion Cotillard plays Ann, an opera soprano. Both of them are on the rise in their respective careers, and they are in a relationship that has captured the public’s and the media’s attention, Despite being apparent opposites, they are very much in love, but from the very beginning you can sense something ominous. Early on, they sing the obviously titled “We Love Each Other So Much,” a love song that sounds a lot like a funeral dirge and that culminates in a frankly sexual moment that was much giggled over when the movie screened at Cannes a few weeks ago. They soon marry and have a child, who they name Annette, and eventually we learn that Annette has a special talent. And that’s where I’ll stop because part of the magic of this movie is the unexpected places it takes you and the unexpected tools it uses to tell its story.
Like many of Carax’s previous films, ANNETTE explores reality and artifice, and in many ways (and I swear I don't mean this the way it's going to sound) it resembles Shakespeare. It revels in its own artifice — the opening number resembles a chorus introducing the drama to come, or Puck addressing the audience in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — and it’s built like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies — everything comes to a head in Act III and progressively deteriorates from there to the tragic but inevitable end. There are many moments that are deliberately made to look fabricated, and I imagine some people will dismiss the movie entirely for this, not reasoning that these are conscious choices by the filmmaker meant to evoke a particular idea or feeling. This is one of the reasons to go into the movie as fresh as possible and not be put off by some particular detail or other that you may have heard out of context. This movie is an experience and one that wants you to think about it and talk about it, not just idly enjoy it as popcorn entertainment (nothing against popcorn entertainment, which I also dearly love, but this is quite a different endeavor).
All of the cast is great in this. Adam Driver in particular gives what may be his best performance to date. He and Marion Cotillard boldly sell these roles and take the absurd elements of the film (including one element that is especially absurd — you’ll know it when you see it) and ground them in reality. And if you've only ever seen Simon Helberg in The Big Bang Theory, he's a revelation here. The music is wonderful and is a great match for the tone of the movie. There are only a handful of songs that can exist on their own as songs; the rest of them are brief moments in the film and depend on the context of the film to feel complete (not a criticism at all). The movie is also gorgeous to look at, with some stunning visuals and interesting effects, as well as copious use of the color green.
The movie is in a few theaters now, and I would advocate seeing it that way if you can, and if you feel safe doing so -- it's a great film for immersing yourself. If not, it will be streaming on Amazon starting August 20 (for goodness sake, watch it on your big TV and not your phone). Oh, and stay for the credits.
If you’d like a taste of the movie before diving in, here’s a two-minute clip with the part of the opening number (the way Russell Mael dramatically turns to direct our attention to Driver and Cotillard coming down a staircase fills me with such joy, I can’t explain it), and about halfway through the clip it begins to show brief not-too-spoilery moments from the rest of the film (including a tease of Adam Driver’s bewtocks, if you’re into that kind of thing).