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In Annette, a rapturous crowd asks Henry McHenry, a comedian played by Adam Driver, why he chose that particular occupation. After several dishonest answers, he finally confesses he wants to disarm people because only through laughter can he tell the truth. This push and pull of honesty and dishonesty, or artificiality and authenticity, are what drive Leos Carax’s latest film. It’s a rock opera that shocks and provokes its audience, daring us not to like it, then gives us just enough to remain curious about what happens next. Carax is not a timid filmmaker, to the point of being divisive, and his collaboration with the rock duo Sparks might be his most accessible effort yet. Or his most alienating.
Before the story kicks into gear, Carax and his collaborators focus on the tension between performer and audience. Aside from the aforementioned standup routine, we watch Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) perform opera. The rewards of her performance are different from McHenry’s: There is a key exchange of dialogue where he observes he “killed” his audience, and she observes she “saved” hers. That yin/yang quality might be why they make a promising couple, so Carax follows their courtship, marriage, and the eventual birth of their daughter. This is where Annette starts to get a little weird: Annette is not a human child, but a puppet with some convincing movements and expressions. The rest of the film follows Henry’s descent into the abyss, literally and metaphorically, while also explaining why Annette looks the way she does.
Ron and Russell Mael are the key members of Sparks, and they supply the songs and lyrics, with Carax collaborating. The music never stops, but the words are what make the songs bizarre—even confrontational. Henry, Ann, and the others sing in declarative statements or simple questions. The romantic duet, for example, has characters repeating the phrase, “We love each other so much.” Later in the film, Ann’s accompanist (Simon Helberg) sings a soliloquy, describing his desires and how he fits into the film. On one level, this can be exhausting; we don’t really need a refrain of simple lyrics, and sometimes that leads to impatience. But in between the lines the others, and particularly Driver, push through the artificiality and find something sublime. Annette argues all performance is fake, and only through acknowledging that can we find the deeper understanding art promises.
It’s not just the actors elevating Annette toward operatic tragedy. Like in many of his previous films, Carax uses shock, formal elegance, and bizarre flourishes to immerse us. No one who sees the film will forget “So May We Start,” the opening number that breaks the fourth wall. Carax himself appears in the recording studio, the Maels begin the song, and the company of actors help him finish. Driver changes outfits and puts on a wig, signaling his switch to playing McHenry. We are shown explicitly that none of this is real, but Carax preserves our suspension of disbelief. During an intense argument between Ann and Henry at sea, Carax uses rear projection and buckets of water as a metaphor for their romantic struggles. This film does not have a huge budget, although that does not stop Carax from deploying big set pieces, like an ironic climax that depicts an event that’s a cross between the Super Bowl and a planetarium laser show. Many of these images take nerve, especially the early sex scenes, because what they strive toward isn’t clear until the end.
Driver sort of rehashes Girls while playing Henry, a charismatic brute who frequently finds alienation to be his only true connection with humanity. Cotillard is a good foil, since the film highlights her gentleness and empathy. The biggest surprise is Helberg, who American audiences know best from the sitcom The Big Bang Theory. He’s no slouch, and as an observer to Henry and Ann, serves as a helpful audience surrogate. He becomes a pivotal character in the film’s second half, and his performance style is an important contrast from Driver’s. (Helberg was also chosen for his physical size, since Driver dominates him in scene after scene.) Still, the most important thing is that these actors are convincing in their tender, quiet moments with a child-sized puppet. After all, how different is a puppet than a talking CGI animal or superhero?
The high and lows of Annette converge in an arresting final conversation, one where the whole conceit clicks into view. It involves Henry and Annette, although the circumstances of the scene and what is sung between them is a little different than anything before it. Their lyrics are more oblique, using metaphor and language to hide their depth of feeling. The scene draws its power from the preceding two hours, a stylized romp through deceptive simplicity that dares us to consider why we feel, and how our most important relationships change over time. “Stop watching me” is the last line in Annette, and it is an answer to the openness of “So May We Start.” Carax keeps it unclear whether “Adam Driver” or “Henry McHenry” says the line, but the more you think about it, the less it matters.
Annette opens in theaters on August 6, then on Amazon Prime on August 20.