24/09/2021

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Annette review: Adam Driver smoulders in this bonkers and flawed rock-musical

Adam Driver as Henry and Marion Cotillard as Ann in Annette

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Adam Driver, man. You could bung him in a drizzly documentary about a sewage plant in Dorking and see it bloom into an Oscar contender. So too with Annette, which would be an oddball turkey without Driver’s charismatic presence, but with it becomes a film worthy of attention. Driver stars as Henry McHenry, a bad-boy standup comedian whose schtick is to turn up onstage in a shaggy dressing gown, smoke, drink and berate his audience for wanting to laugh. His wife, Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard, also on top form) is in showbiz too – a world-famous soprano, she is usually cast in roles that require her to die swooningly at the eleventh hour, breaking hearts and drawing tearful ‘bravos’ from her audiences. As lovers they are well-matched (the sex scenes are surprisingly hot) but when Ann’s stardom outstrips her husband’s, his ego begins to crater.

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Marion Cotillard as Ann in Annette

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The premise for the film makes it sound rather like other movies about the Hollywood juggernaut: La La Land, Birdman, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But in practice this film is dancing to its own tune. It’s a musical, for one thing, and a relentless one – virtually every line is sung, with the lead actors courageously stepping up to the mic (though at points a professional opera singer supplements Cotillard’s decent efforts). The songs are composed by Ron and Russell Mael, leathery brothers who are seen in the fourth-wall smashing opening number, ‘So May We Start’. The Maels are best known as the 70s pop duo, Sparks, and the music they’ve made for this is pretty good – a friend who saw the film in France tells me she’s not been able to get the tunes out of her head for a fortnight. The lyrics, though, are less delightful: ‘We love each other so much’ is a particular boner-killer, which has Cotillard and Driver insipidly insisting they love each other, over and over as they gambol through bucolic countryside. It might be meant as a pastiche of a syrupy musical number, but it ends up eating its own tail and just being a little, well, wet.

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The cast of Annette

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The director, Leos Carax, is a cult French filmmaker known in part for the stinginess of his output, after a meteoric rise in his twenties. Spiritually the film feels deeply French – it’s experimental, genre-busting, romantic but cynical about the dependability of love, uninterested in anything so tacky as audience gratification. It also treats subjects like #MeToo and violence against women with a Gallic shrug – as Henry’s career implodes, he lashes out the old-school way, against his wife and baby daughter. Handled by a more nervy American director, the film might have become a morality tale, but here Henry remains the smouldering hero of the hour, the magnet to which all other storylines and characters are drawn.

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Marion Cotillard as Ann in Annette

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

So what’s gone wrong? Good music, great actors, interesting enough concept. The biggest issue is that the film feels like it’s playing out at the long end of a telescope – characters are more archetypal figures than they are individuals. It has the distant energy of an upmarket modern opera filmed for television. Cotillard’s prodigious talent goes to waste because as Ann she never does much more than sing prettily, submit to the erotic attentions of her husband, and become the victim to his careering egotism. A lot of the film is pretty tedious – particularly the stand-up scenes, which are possibly meant to be an endurance test, and which certainly push patience to the limit. Another issue is that much of the story focuses on Annette, Henry and Ann’s eerily gifted daughter. She is played for the majority of the film by a series of marionettes, all of which are extremely creepy. Whenever the adults coo over this ill-fated child, it’s hard to care because she’s a freaky doll, blinking and girating her arms. Annette herself is the stuff of nightmares, which may have been Carax’s intent – but which nonetheless suppresses emotional investment in a good chunk of the film.

Adam Driver as Henry in Annette

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Some people will love Annette: I can see it appealing to film nerds in particular, because it’s chaotic and weird and brave, and steeped in film history. But most people I expect will find it baffling, boring and pretentious; too much music, too little meaning. Adam Driver really is great though.

TWO STARS

Annette is released in the UK on 3 September

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