Review by David Baldwin
I watched Annette a few nights ago, and have been racking my brain trying to find the words to properly describe it. It is a truly unique vision that is equal parts brilliant and bewildering. At the same time, it is profoundly weird and destined to be polarizing. This rock opera (which I guess would be the closest genre description?) will not be for everyone and I expect many will straight up loathe its very existence. The film World Premiered just under a month ago at the Cannes Film Festival as the Opening Night selection and received a 5-minute standing ovation (which bored Adam Driver and Director Leos Carax so much that they started smoking in the middle of it) as well as the Best Director prize.
Annette centres on Henry (Driver), a comedian married and in love with opera singer Ann (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard). They both have their separate careers and goals, but all of that changes irrevocably after the birth of their daughter Annette.
Knowing this and very little else beyond what I gleamed from shortened Twitter reactions, I prepared to see something crazy. And while it indeed is the certifiably bonkers vision I expected, it is also deeper and more introspective than I ever could have imagined.
So may we start?
I mentioned that Annette would not be for everyone at the beginning of this review and I truly mean it. It is not a conventional musical whatsoever and is really unlike anything you will ever watch. Using the words and music of the visionary band Sparks — who were just profiled in Edgar Wright’s wonderful documentary The Sparks Brothers — Carax has crafted a film that is not of this world. From the first frame up until the very last, it is vividly expressively and bleeds style. The production design is stellar, packing so much exquisite beauty into the frame that practically begs you to re-watch and discover details you may have missed. The staging is magnificent, and the way Carax and Cinematographer Caroline Champetier position the camera is incredible. To say I was amazed would be an understatement.
And that is just skimming the surface. Annette manages to equally grab romance, parenthood and toxic masculinity by the balls and spin them in the most twisted ways. It even makes time to inventively slip in glimpses of meta commentary at every turn (along with extended cameos from Sparks’ Ron and Russell Mael). Every scene, every song, every moment has a peculiar and idiosyncratic look and feel. Even in its most ridiculously preposterous moments (and there are many of them), you will not be able to look away. You will just be transfixed by the chaotic insanity Carax has captured on-screen. When Martin Scorsese is being asked about cinema and not comic book movies, Annette is the kind of film he’s talking about.
Fair warning though — there is one particular beautifully disturbing element that is so bizarre that it must be seen to be believed. And no, I am not talking about Driver “singing” while going down on Cotillard (sadly, whoever noted this was not paying as much attention as they should have been, as Driver does not appear to be THAT great at multitasking). It is metaphorical, baffling and otherworldly. Others have already spoiled this wild addition, and somehow I managed to have no idea it was coming. So I will give you the same respect and simply say, you will know what I am talking about when you see it.
For me, what holds Annette back from true greatness is that there is just too much to it. It clocks in at nearly 2 and a half hours and feels genuinely dragged out. Some scenes are focused and edited so precisely that you may cut yourself if you get too close to them whereas others feel loose, scattered and all over the place. The film follows a through line that keeps these scenes thematically relevant, but they feel so aggravatingly overdone and agonizing to watch (especially when the camera deliberately leers like a voyeur, silently watching as scenes play out in lengthy unbroken takes). It becomes downright obnoxious and off-putting in some sequences, just as it goes to places that I cannot even begin to describe without feeling like I should be up for psychiatric review. I understand why Carax draws out the scenes and what he is going for within them, yet feel like there are some truly exceptional moments that are undercut because everything around them does not match up to their greatness. It makes it challenging to really admire the work Carax and Sparks put into Annette, and will test the patience of even the film’s biggest fans for nonsensical bullshit.
On the flip side, what is not challenging to admire is Driver, who delivers one of the greatest performances of his career as Henry. He is a genuine force of nature at all times, practically igniting the screen in flames after every show stopping moment. Like so much of Driver’s most demanding work, Henry is a damaged and abusive individual whose toxicity bleeds into both his relationships and his on-stage performances. The film may say he is a comedian, but his showmanship and his idea of what constitutes as a joke leave a lot to be desired. You grow to hate Henry, even as his charisma continues to draw you in and asks you to forget all the bad things he does. It is a very physically and emotionally daunting performance that would leave many actors buckling at the knees. Not Driver though — he acts his heart out, giving every ounce of energy and strength he can muster and sucking the life out of anyone who gets in his way. Suggesting he left a piece of his soul behind would not be a stretch. I was not always Driver’s biggest fan, but am now prepared to say he is one of our greatest living young actors.
Cotillard, while not as powerful and intense as Driver, still manages to turn in a delightfully dazzling performance as Ann. Her singing voice is spectacular and the way the camera captures the gleam in her eyes is a special effect all in itself. She does some heavy lifting throughout the film and works off of Driver brilliantly. She is Annette‘s emotional centre piece and is acutely aware of the part she plays in many of its outrageous moments. The film would have benefitted from using her more, and would have benefitted greatly from increasing Simon Helberg’s screen time even more so. He plays a small but pivotal role as “The Conductor”, and never once falters when faced with the towering presence of both lead actors. Most people will remember him from his work as Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, but his passionate portrayal here makes him practically unrecognizable. One particular fourth-wall breaking moment is absolutely riveting, both in the way Carax shoots it and in how Helberg commands the space around him. It is just one of many scene-stealing moments that constantly upend any expectations you may have of the young actor, instead suggesting there is a deep, soulful performer behind his otherwise comical persona. This just may be the breakout performance he has been waiting for.
I am still flabbergasted by Annette. It is chaos incarnate and the kind of film that sears images into your brain that you will never forget. At the same time, it is a brilliantly flawed masterpiece unlike any other — a truly original and unique work amongst a sea of IP-driven fantasy. Coupling in career best work from Driver, terrific performances from Cotillard and Helberg, not to mention being powered by the twisted vision of Carax and Sparks, and you have a film that is absolutely unmissable. And while it is bound to be misunderstood and hated by many, I hope that it will find an audience to love and appreciate it. It would be a shame for great art like this to just fade away into obscurity.
So may we start?
Annette opens in select theatres across Canada on Friday, August 6, 2021. Please ensure you are cautious and respect all Covid-19 protocols if you choose to see this film theatrically.