Most musicals create a heightened reality as part of a prerequisite for the genre, and then there is Annette. The first film in nearly a decade for Leos Carax, the wild risk-taking auteur behind such form-pushing provocations as Holy Motors and The Lovers on the Bridge, Annette is as tortured, joyous, and swooning a work as those in his filmography. His return marks a significant occasion for arthouses, and he meets that sense of event with a film to be tamed during and after one watches it. Annette infuriates and enthrals in equal measure, undeterred by how much of the audience it loses with its one-of-a-kind spectacle. Carax is back and making stylistic leaps as bold and uninterested in the rational as ever, but he reemerges with his greatest sense of reflective humanity.
Carax’s tenacity is the star of the show, but Annette is also as much a showcase for its lead Adam Driver as Carax previously made for Denis Lavant. Driver plays Henry McHenry, a beloved shock comedian who matches performance art, caustic observations, and a disdain for the audience for packed, chanting theatres. He falls in love with the celebrated opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), a pairing unexpected by a media-obsessed audience and heavily scrutinized in the shadow cast by Henry’s trolling material. But the fractures in their union meet an imposing new pressure with the arrival of their daughter, the titular Annette, and the interjection of Simon Helberg’s Conductor.
But driving Annette is an eccentric and consuming score from Sparks, turning the film into an opera constantly, even intentionally at odds with the medium’s demands. The band’s melodies and lyrics undermine genre in ways that shock regularly throughout the film, making the bombast of more audience-friendly mainstay musicals fangless and foolish in comparison. Sparks pulls an unbalanced narrative weight when the film strains to move between its plotty chapters, but they deliver something as idiosyncratic as Carax’s unique perspective—and they are met with a towering performer as their score’s vessel.
Driver proves an uninhibited and game collaborator to Carax and his vision, plunging headfirst into a full-bodied submission to all of Annette’s absurdity. The actor is a fountain of nerve here while maintaining the groundedness that has defined his career thus far, and this effort stands as a sizable leap forward for his already formidable reputation. Though he tosses himself about Henry’s stage, leaning in to the score’s amelodic stretches and unafraid of Carax’s demand that he go not just big but meteoric, Driver’s performance stays intensely controlled. Beastly in stretches and fragile in others, this work is another entry in his run of precisely calibrated vulnerability. Seldom is an actor’s capacity laid as bare as Driver’s grand display, and even if it doesn’t spotlight him as an actor who can do anything (singing remains not his forte), it does confirm as one of the bravest who will do anything in service to a film.
Annette is delightedly self-aware of all the protestations that might be hurled against it by the audience. It pontificates, it uses literate film knowledge to wield its oddest and potentially most divisive strokes of artistry, the score grows repetitive as the worst parts of its protagonist reintroduce themselves again and again. The film is as much a delight in the off-putting as it is in the divine. And it all serves Carax’s ultimate goals; there is purposeful pretension to match Henry’s character arc, with the film existing as unbridled ego writ large, only to thoroughly dismantle it all in its final scene.
Unspooling at its own rhythms, the film looks at the difference between what is artifice and what is artificial, standing as a treatise against cinematic convention but also the ego of the artist. One’s mileage may vary on Annette’s drunk-on-its-own-supply antics, but it also reveals itself with an innate sensitivity. It is perhaps Carax’s most personal film, but even hints of that are delivered with a devilish evasiveness.
Annette centers on the self-absorption of the artist and does so with showstopping, sometimes distancing formal audacity and technique. While Carax’s concept and execution offer substantially more interesting achievements than anything in the story itself, the film is a can’t-miss piece of work over which to pull one’s hair out and luxuriate in in equal measure.