Leos Carax's "Annette" is a musical made of chants and a romance without much love
Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg and Devyn McDowell. Written by Leos Carax, Ron Mael and Russell Mael. Directed by Leos Carax. Opens Friday at Landmark 24 Theatres in Whitby; streaming begins Aug. 20 on Amazon Prime. 141 minutes. STC
Calling Leos Carax's dispiriting new film "Annette" a musical takes generosity to extremes.
The songs are like chants sung by amateur monks. This includes the earworm opener, "So May We Start," which gathers the cast and Carax with group energy that quickly dissipates. The quirky musical offerings are courtesy of brothers Ron and Russell Mael of pop duo Sparks, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Carax. ("Annette," which opened the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, was originally conceived as a Sparks rock opera album.)
The Maels aren't entirely at fault — and in fairness, a Sparks fan (which I'm not) may well be charmed by their contributions, which are eccentrically true to form.
This first English-language film by Carax, the French auteur behind the transportive genius of "Holy Motors" and "Les Amants du Pont-Neuf," also suffers from the infelicitous pairing of Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard and insufficient narrative drive.
Driver is the sour Henry McHenry, an L.A. stand-up comedian who delights in not amusing his audience. Channeling Andrew Dice Clay at his most obnoxious, he paces the stage in a green boxer's robe, muttering insults. (The film's colour scheme, usually a plus in a Carax film, mainly settles for a dull blend of "Exorcist" bile green and prison-garb orange.)
Cotillard plays sweet Ann Defrasnoux, a beloved opera soprano. How these two met and married is hard to fathom. They chant "We Love Each Other So Much," even while having sex, but there's not much amour on display.
He's jealous of her greater success. There's potential for drama there, but Ann often inexplicably just drops out of the picture. A subplot with Simon Helberg as a jealous orchestra conductor similarly comes up short.
Neither Driver nor Cotillard are trained singers. The acquit themselves well enough, but they don't have the vocal chops to elevate a paper-thin story, the way Céline Dion does, say, for a Meat Loaf video. The writing is at fault, not the acting.
Then a baby enters the scene, the title Annette, who possesses a unique talent. Suddenly the movie turns into an absurdist remake of "Pinocchio." Annette is a marionette, rendered mostly by CGI and old-fashioned puppetry, but nobody on screen acknowledges it.
Which is weirdly OK, since the tech crew did a great job. Annette has more life to her than the rest of the cast. She gives the movie what genuine emotion it possesses and even partially redeems Driver's vile Henry.
To quote a line from one of the film's chants: "Counterintuitive baby, and yet we remain." 🌗
Brothers Ron and Russell Mael of pop duo Sparks, the co-writers and co-composers of Leos Carax's musical "Annette."