In all my years of writing reviews, I don’t think I’ve ever had as hard of a time writing one as I have with Annette. There’s a lot going on with this film that gives me conflicted feelings. It has the reputation of opening the Cannes Film Festival, standing alongside critically acclaimed movies like Moonrise Kingdom and Midnight in Paris. This is director Leos Carax’s latest film after 2012’s Holy Motors, which is regarded as being one of the best films of the past decade. Then you have the fact that it’s a musical, a pet interest of mine, but a musical where the entire soundtrack was created by the criminally underrated pop duo Sparks.
And yet, instead of these elements combining and coalescing into a movie that can, and should, work, they never fully do. It’s a choppy movie that feels smothered by its own ambition. Annette wants to be grand and powerful, a commentary on fame, celebrity culture, and parenthood but has nothing meaningful to say about it.
Strap yourselves in boys and girls, it’s gonna be a long one.
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Director: Leos Carax
Release Date: August 6, 2021 (Limited Theatrical), August 20, 2021 (Amazon Prime)
Henry (Adam Driver) and Ann (Marion Cotillard) are a celebrity couple who are from two different worlds. Henry is a stand-up comedian with an extremely provocative sense of humor while Ann is an amazing opera singer. The two fall in love and eventually have a young daughter, baby Annette. However, Annette is born with a strange gift and after debating on what to do with said gift, Henry decides to exploit her. He plans to use her abilities to not only bring fame to her, but also to him, as over time he’s become a has-been after a string of unsuccessful performances.
The first problem that immediately springs to mind is the overall pacing of Annette. That entire paragraph up there may seem barebones, but I swear to you that it summarizes the first hour of this two-hour and twenty-minute film. The first half-hour is solely dedicated to watching, in its entirety, one of Henry’s performances, which just drags. It’s not even a comedy show at the end of the day since it’s more exposition to establish the dynamic between Ann and Henry. A half-hour of exposition dump interrupted by the occasional song.
The music of this movie musical is something of an acquired taste. If you’ve never heard of the duo Sparks, I can’t really blame you. There was an excellent documentary that was released back in June detailing the duo and their 50-year career (one that was directed by Edgar Wright that you should totally watch). In fact, it was that film that informed me about Annette, as the members, Ron and Russ Mael, have been trying since the 90s to score a film and were never able to. The story and music were entirely their creation, and it carries their eclectic style for the better and for the worse.
The music of Annette is repetitive. Motifs will appear throughout the film and the brothers understand that Annette is an opera. The primary form of communication here is through song with very few spoken lines of dialogue. Songs like “So May We Start,” the opener of the film, is an excellent song that sets the movie up as being almost a performance in and of itself. A group of actors assuming the roles of actors in a production orchestrated by the brothers. Yet this is the only time the movie goes about in this direction. I’m almost reminded of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that openly acknowledges its fabricated nature of theatricality before diving headfirst into surrealism, never to again acknowledge the artificiality of it all until the very end.
And boy oh boy is Annette surreal. I wouldn’t say that people burst into song like in any other musical, but they just wander into a performance. At a disastrous performance in Vegas by Henry, the audience just sings their criticisms and negativity of him. Henry projects his insecurities onto others around him, whether it’s seeing himself as a monkey or hearing a laugh track in his head of people not laughing because he made them, but people laughing at him, all while he’s morphing into a clown. Thy symbolism is all very apparent and it’s all very, very strange for the first half of the movie.
Things begin to change at the halfway point when the movie oddly becomes a lot more conventional and easier to follow. A lot of the surrealism is left behind as their young child comes into the picture, who is just straight-up disturbing to watch. I get what Carax was trying to do with her and the directorial decisions he made about her portrayal, but they don’t alter the fact that whenever baby Annette is up on the screen, I’m begging, pleading for her to be taken away. It’s one of those surprises that is best left for you to discover on your own because wow, does it really not work for me.
The movie is littered with these curious decisions, ones that show that maybe Sparks aren’t the best when it comes to long-form narrative structure. Early in the film, we’re introduced to the Conductor (Simon Helberg), who details his history with Ann as her accompanist. The character then disappears for well over an hour only to be reintroduced as he reintroduces himself to the audience as if we’ve forgotten he exists because we most likely did. His presence is negligible until Annette writes itself into a corner and needs someone to progress that plot.
None of this is to disparage the performances here. Adam Driver is still a relatable guy who has a somewhat decent set of pipes for singing. It’s clearly not his specialty, but he’s no Russell Crowe. Marion Cotillard, however, is an excellent singer and is used as the singing voice for both her and baby Annette. She’s straight-up magical as a vocalist, delivering some lovely bits of music, but I just wish she was given better material to work with.
Most of the songs that Cotillard is given are pieces like “We Love Each Other So Much,” which repeats that lyric for what feels like an eternity. There is barely any variation in the piece in terms of lyrical composition. It tells the audience for minutes on end that, yes, Henry and Ann are in love. They’re so in love. They love each other very much. Did you know that they love each other? Cause they do. They love each other so much. Henry loves Ann. Ann loves Henry, which makes sense since they both love each other very much. They love each other on the road, they love each other in bed, they love each other so much. Oh, by the way, did I mention that they love each other very much? Not a little bit, as some may say. No, they love each other very much. Very, very much.
That’s what it feels like to listen to most of the songs here in Annette. “So May We Start” is the rare exception since the rest come across like storytelling for elementary students. To their credit, Sparks have built their songs like this for several decades and it works on albums where they’re allowed to experiment with tone and structure and pace and a whole load of other musical terminology I won’t pretend to fully understand myself. I’m most reminded of their album Lil Beethoven here since it captures that esoteric structure, but that album was meant to be a radical departure and shift for the duo. The album is as critically acclaimed as it is because it just does whatever it wants, structure be damned. However, that is, at the end of the day, an experimental album, not a feature film. Carax and Sparks are trying to tell a story here. A dreamlike and euphoric one at that, one that is barely tethered to reality, but tethered nonetheless, and such a scattershot design simply doesn’t work here.
When the movie does eventually realize that it needs to have some kind of a plot and can’t be basic declarations of emotions, Annette gains a bit more traction, but in a strange way. The only way I can describe the second half of the film is if it was the strange love-child of The Who’s Tommy and King Kong and I am aware of how much that sounds like peanut butter and mayonnaise. But by losing a lot of that uncharacteristic energy, it almost becomes boring. The film becomes an observation on child stardom, one that has several shades of modern-day celebrity exploitation but doesn’t have much to say besides acknowledging that what’s going on isn’t right and what Henry is doing to his daughter is bad.
Annette meanders around like this for an hour, never fully committing to its idea. It would be one thing if the film stayed as an examination of parenthood and marriage within celebrity culture like it tries to do in the first half of the movie, but it abandons a lot of those ideas for something that feels easier to understand. At the end of the day, Annette doesn’t feel confident or fully fleshed out in either of those departments and instead becomes a tale of two movies. Do you want a film that feels surreal and has a glacial pace yet goes all-in on its strangeness and imperfections, or do you want a more conventional movie that doesn’t have too many memorable moments but actually feels like a movie? You can’t have it both ways, but Carax tries and I would say fails.
At the end of the day, I just couldn’t engage with Annette. The movie functions and it doesn’t do anything bad or awful, but I just couldn’t find a way to like this movie in any meaningful way. I fully acknowledge that this could just be me. Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong and Annette is going to go on to become the sleeper hit of 2021 and rack up all of the awards for the year. It’s possible, certainly, and I wouldn’t mind if it did. But the more I think about Annette, the more I can’t muster up anything other than a shrug describing the film. It was fine, but it’s easy to see where it could have been improved.
Its song composition is solid and the performances by Driver and Cotillard are great. The imagery is evocative and the symbolism is clear in conveying the inner turmoil of the characters. Yet the lyrics, the choppy nature of the plot, the strange thematic and structural turns that it makes, and its overall bloated nature make it too haphazard to give a recommendation to. Annette is a niche film for niche film lovers who love some arthouse style and panache, but general audiences will find it too impenetrable while others may find it frankly boring. It’s a sad state, but that’s the honest to God truth.
Annette is boring and needed more time in the oven before releasing to the world.