“Fame is like a flame,” Adam Driver’s Henry McHenry says wistfully in his stand-up routine, before a rapt audience. “Glorious, superfluous…” It’s the thesis of Annette, the campy rock opera whose characters never find a healthy balance with their fame. The statement is part-ironic, part-truthful, much like the film itself, directed by Leos Carax and soundtracked by Sparks (Ron and Russell Mael), opening this year’s long-awaited Cannes Film Festival. You can sense the film straining against its puppet-strings: It never quite wants to dance with wild abandon, nor does it want to fully commit to seriousness. The final product is a free-wheeling, often self-indulgent musical joyride whose audacity is admirable, even when it oversteps into unwieldiness.
All’s unfair in love and showbiz, and no one knows it better than Henry, a self-deprecating stand-up comic in the vein of Bo Burnham; he struts and frets his “mildly offensive” hour about the stage each night in front of an audience whose caprices he learns the hard way when his routine’s reception goes south. He’s affianced to his polar opposite, a beloved opera singer named Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) who’s typecast as the tragic heroine, dying night after night before an enthusiastic crowd. As entertainers, they’re apples and oranges (or rather apples and bananas, given their esculent preferences): Ann’s performances are delicate, artful, and gifted, whereas Henry’s are brutish, self-hating, and crass. An occasional celebrity gossip show intercut, which appears to be green-screened by a first-year film editing major, christens them “Beauty and the Bastard.” Yet both draw the same adoring response from audiences… until one day, after trying a new controversial bit, Henry doesn’t. The rest is tragedy, as Henry enters a downward spiral that topples their love affair.
There’s also the matter of the titular character, Henry and Ann’s animatronic daughter Annette, who is born with cartoonish ears, mechanical movements, and bright red hair, not unlike a Chucky doll. When Henry’s career goes south, he taps Annette to compensate for his downfall, taking her ghostly, melismatic, baby prodigy voice on the road only to awaken another ghost—there’s a reason Annette’s name sounds like “marionette” and also means “little Ann.” Indeed, Annette herself is the real victim of the film, an accidentally topical storyline given the resurgence in the news of another exploited child star, though it’s hard to feel truly sympathetic for her. She’s very, very creepy, a fact that cannot be overstated, evoking the uncanny valley CGI of Renesmee from “Twilight.”
Of course that’s the point: Henry can see neither his wife nor his daughter for anything but their value as entertainers until it’s too late. His solipsism is his downfall, and his family’s. Despite its title, Annette is Henry’s film, and by extension, Driver’s. To that end, Driver is fantastic even when the film is flailing, his physicality dominating the frame such that even Henry’s sloppy moments feel intentional and truthful. If the film critiques that character flaw, though, it also recapitulates it. It’s Henry who gets the most screen time, Henry whose interiority Carax tries to decipher and portray, even while critiquing it. You get the sense that Driver has so much to do precisely because Cotillard has so little, the former enjoying bravura turns and setpieces of physical comedy while the latter literally becomes a wan ghost, waterlogged hair draping the back of a drenched gown. It’s impossible to wish for less Adam Driver when he’s offering so much that works so well, but even with a spacious 140-minute runtime, Cotillard tends to disappear passively into his shadow.
Nevertheless, though the film dips its toe into topicality—a #MeToo storyline is hinted at, but revealed to be an imaginary figment; a controversial set-piece in a stand-up routine gets Henry canceled—it mostly eschews polemical commentary in favor of leaning wholeheartedly into camp and spectacle. That’s mostly for the best. If Annette succeeds, it’s because Carax is unafraid to embrace maximalism in all respects, from fanciful, lush production design (by Florian Samson) to paratextual, postmodern interludes (edited by Nelly Quettier), and of course, in sweeping, choreographed musical numbers in which everyone is a player, from audience members to a team of OB-GYNs.
Admittedly, not all Sparks’ musical numbers are created equal—“So May We Start” provides a rollicking opening number, while Henry and Ann’s duet “We Love Each Other So Much” quickly becomes saccharine. But the medium does construct a necessary backdrop for the ill-fated love story. For a couple whose livelihoods and lives are entrenched in the act of performance, the constant devotion to theatricality becomes not only form, but also function. It’s most apparent in the moments when the music lapses into dysfunction, as Henry rages about the stage in his signature green bathrobe, booming “You used to laugh!” at a disapproving audience. Or even more hauntingly when the spectacle stops, as a final sequence unravels the film’s own premise and gives way to a stark, untheatrical musical number. It’s no accident that stenciled lettering over Henry’s head ominously proclaims QUIET, the greatest nightmare of a comic who has spent his career commanding audiences to “laugh! Laugh! Laugh!” The quietude offsets the prior noisiness, righting the balance. The delusions of grandeur have never been grander.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival. Amazon Studios will release Annette in theaters on August 6 then on Prime Video August 20.