There’s undeniably a connection between tragedy and comedy, and the central couple of the weird and wonderous movie Annette serves as a reminder: Ann Defrasnoux is an opera singer; Henry McHenry is a stand-up comic. Their whirlwind romance, though, doesn’t exactly delineate where one starts and the other ends. When Ann (Marion Cotillard) solemnly dons a red wig and navigates the foggy scenery of the stage, you might hold back a chuckle as well as a tear. And when Henry (Adam Driver) takes the stage in a boxing robe that suits his punchy delivery, his violent self-loathing seems to provoke more anxiety than laughter. Such big emotional extremes can only be properly expressed in song, something that Annette embraces with passionate imagination and playful conviction. Dazzlingly directed by French filmmaker Leos Carax from a script and songs written by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, the art-pop-rock duo better known as Sparks, the movie is both the story of a doomed marriage and a remarkably harmonious marriage of sensibilities. Those sensibilities are different, to be sure, especially in terms of output: This is just Carax’s sixth film in thirty-seven years, while Sparks has churned out twenty-five albums over five decades. But these artists also have a lot in common — unpredictable style, an affinity for the French New Wave — and have been adored and championed with much the same cultish intensity.
Annette, which fittingly takes its name from Ann and Henry’s not-yet-born daughter, turns out to be an artistic love child like no other. Cinephiles who’ve swooned for Carax’s brand of doomy romanticism have long hoped that he might make a full-blown musical. Sparks fans, who can be fiercely loyal and strangely fickle by turns, will surely be delighted that the Maels have finally realized their dream of bringing their music to the screen for a demented backstage melodrama that nods to A Star Is Born, among others. It begins with a giddy rush of let’s-start-the-show energy. The Maels appear, tuning up their equipment and launching into a delirious number (“So May We Start?”) that becomes goofily hypnotic as Carax and his actors join in, all of them marching toward the camera in a long tracking shot that begins indoors and ends out on Santa Monica Boulevard.
There’s a lot to love in that overture: a merry collaborative spirit that promises to lift your mood and defy your expectations. But by the time the movie draws to a melancholic close two hours and twenty minutes later, that promise feels kept in one sense and deliberately betrayed in another. It’s hard not to feel moved a bit by the sheer improbable fact of this movie’s existence: Moment by moment, you’re held by its loony flights of lyricism and striking images (shot by Caroline Champetier), and by the mix of sincerity and irony that animates every sung-through line. But before long a chill seeps in, darkening the movie’s melodies and tilting a once-glorious love story into a spiral of loss and regret. The city’s shimmer receding and the action shifts toward the faintly menacing luxury of the couple’s home.
Even Ann and Henry’s idyllic early days as a couple feel overshadowed by death. Ann, who’s starring in a new opera, embraces her character’s nightly demise with a grand passion that her audiences finds cathartic. Henry, by contrast, frustrates his crowd’s desire for easy laughs, sometimes so darkly unnerving is that you’re never entirely sure he’s joking. And so the warning signs are there from the beginning. But so is a genuine sense of mutual love and desire, one that kinds its tenderest expression in the hexing quality of the lyrics and the trembling nature of the actors’ voices. Both leads have shown off their singing talents before — Cotillard in the movie Nine, Driver in Inside Llewyn Davis and Marriage Story — though never at a level this emotionally and narratively demanding. “We love each other so much / We love each other so much,” Ann and Henry sing as they wander through the woods, speed down a road, and then make love. Putting a wickedly literal spin on the familiar euphemism of “making beautiful music together,” Annette pushes the form’s burst-into-sing conventions boldly and sometimes hilariously to their limits.
From time to time the spell breaks, sometimes deliberately. A sympathetic orchestra conductor (Simon Helberg) steps in, singing of his devotion to Ann and his suspicions about Henry. Nuggets of exposition are dispensed in Hollywood-satirizing news clips, breaking up the music and hastening Ann and Henry’s journey through marriage and parenthood. They name their infant daughter Annette — a petite Ann, of course. And the connection between actress Marion Cotillard and the word “marionette” seems likely, especially since Sparks’ known love of wordplay and the fact that Annette takes the form of a remarkably soulful puppet. From there the mind races: Are we watching a horror fantasy, a meditation on creative anxiety or a homage to cinema’s past? Is it a darker riff on Marriage Story, as the central relationship goes south and a child’s fate hangs in the balance, at the mercy of yet another Driver character’s all-consuming sense of self?
If so, the movie can’t help but seem captivated by what it critiques. Cotillard is as luminous a presence as ever, but this isn’t her movie; nor, despite the title, does it belong to the sweetly precocious Annette, her wooden form perfectly how her father sees her. No, the movie belongs to Driver, who’s credited as a producer here, and who has rarely appeared more imposing in his physicality, more bottomless in his capacity for rage and deceit. You can see why the filmmakers love Driver, as so many do; he’s the rare actor capable of shouldering Sparks’ knack for unsettling comedy as well as Carax’s career-long devotion to tragic romantics. At times he looks as dangerously tortured as Kylo Ren, and when he dons Henry’s hooded rob or motorcycle helmet you could almost swear he’s channeling that intergalactic villain, this time engaged in star wars of a different kind. All of which reinforces the sense that Annette might be unfolding in an intricate hall of cinematic mirrors — perhaps even the same one as Carax’s previous film Holy Motors, which, like this film, has a thing for monkeys, limousines and the color green. But where that deranged masterwork had a boundless sense of imagination that seemed to grow by the minute, the emotional and aesthetic possibilities of Annette curiously seem to tighten as the movie progresses: By the end, it’s painted itself into a poignant corner, one that feels like the logical (if such a word is possible) end point for the punishing story of fame and vanity that Carax is telling. He’s the movies’ reigning poet of obsessive passion, and here he shows us the bitter reality — more tragic than comic — of what happens when that love is lost. Annette, as a spiraling love story of alienation, loss and regret, couldn’t be more singular; striving as an operatic ballet of bold emotional extremes that bludgeons and mesmerizes alike.
Annette is currently playing in Select Theaters and will be available on Prime Video on August 20