Director Leos Carax has a reputation for the unusual. Anyone who witnessed Holy Motors (2012) will testify that he loves to embrace the absurd. So Annette would seem like a good fit for him. This surreal rock opera, created by Ron and Russel Mael of Sparks – who themselves are suddenly enjoying some time in the sun after a long sojourn in the ‘whatever happened to?’ file – gives Carax free rein to unleash his bonkers world-view. There are some gorgeous visuals in here, strong performances and several scenes that feel genuinely unique. How ironic then, that what ultimately lets the film down is the songs.
There’s a really upbeat start to proceedings as the cast and crew parade through the streets singing about how excited they are to get this show started. And then it begins…
This is the story of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a ‘provocative’ stand up comedian who seems to love insulting the poor saps who buy tickets to see his shows. If it’s supposed to be funny, well, it isn’t working for me, but perhaps that’s the point. Henry is in the throes of a passionate love affair with world famous opera singer, Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), to whom he sings even when they are in the midst of sexual intercourse. Not wanting to be left out, she joins in with him.
But when Henry’s ‘comedy’ career suddenly hits the rocks and Ann’s operatic trajectory continues to soar, in true A Star in Born fashion, Henry becomes ever more Machiavellian in his attempts to bring her down, even after she’s given birth to their daughter, the titular Annette. The child is unusual to say the very least and not just because she appears to be made of wood.
It would perhaps be unfair to give away much more of the plot, but suffice to say that what starts out as very strange becomes increasingly bizarre. So there’s plenty here to keep a viewer entertained.
Which brings me back to the aforementioned songs, too many of which seem to consist of characters singing the same six words over and over again in a minor key. After a while it begins to feel like a particularly irritating ring tone. It also makes me think that the bum-numbing running time of two hours and twenty minutes could easily have been reduced by a good forty minutes, if the Maels had done a bit of judicious trimming.
It’s also doubly bewildering when a final duet between McHenry and his daughter is the film’s undoubted musical highlight, but by that time it feels too late in the day to save it. A shout out is due to the astonishing Devyn McDowell, who kind of steals the film in its closing moments. I think she’ll be a huge star in the future.
Driver also deserves full credit for playing it straight and giving his role total commitment. Cotillard – somewhat underused for reasons that soon become clear – at least gets to sing some classic arias with great skill. (And yes, she does perform them herself.) But the current plethora of four and five star reviews for Annette seem wildly overstated. And much as I enjoyed Edgar Wright’s documentary about Ron and Russell, this is not their finest moment. I fully expected to love this, but in the end, I’m somewhat disappointed by it.