Annette: Adam Driver Amazes in the Arty #MeToo Musical
Reuben Baron
Of the many movie musicals coming out this year, Annette is almost certainly going to be the weirdest. A collaboration between the eccentric rock duo Sparks and arthouse enfant terrible Leos Carax, who previously won Best Director for the film at Cannes, Annette is a movie that takes big swings. It will certainly leave audiences divided over which parts of the musical film worked better than others. One thing there will most likely be consensus on, however, is that Adam Driver's performance is absolutely incredible and carries the entire film.
The catchy, fourth-wall-breaking opening number, "So May We Start?" immediately sets up that Carax is playing in a similar "all the world's a stage" mode as 2012's Holy Motors. It's a cinematic presentation of a theatrical framing device. Annette's heightened unreality leaves much open to interpretation. Some songs seem to be only happening in the characters' heads, while, for others, it's an important plot point that the characters are actually breaking out into song. One of the most haunting numbers, "Six Women Have Come Forward," is framed as a dream sequence but one suspects that its content might be all too real.
Annette Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard
Annette Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard
As stylized as the filmmaking is, Annette's story stays relatively rooted in reality for most of its first hour. Adam Driver channels Robert DeNiro's performance as Henry McHenry, a misanthropic anti-PC comedian whose act revolves around how he hates his audience and himself. In a movie filled with humor, especially Simon Helberg's two songs, McHenry's stand-up performances are strikingly unfunny, but still compelling to watch.
The one person McHenry seems to love (until he doesn't) is his wife Ann Defrasnoux, an opera singer (Marion Cotillard). Cotillard's perfect voice makes a fitting accompaniment and counterpoint to Driver's fittingly shakier singing. Feminist critics might debate how Ann's character works as a commentary on the portrayal of women in the opera, especially when this rock opera ends up engaging in some of the exact same tropes it mocks.
The narrative reality gets a lot looser when the film's title character, McHenry and Defrasnoux's daughter, is born. The trailers for the movie have wisely avoided showing what is sure to be its most divisive feature -- Annette is a puppet. A wooden, rather creepy puppet. While her intentionally unrealistic design means she's not quite as much of an Uncanny Valley abomination as Renesmee Carlie Cullen in Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, there's still something kind of unnerving about her. It's one thing when it's just another stylistic choice, but when Baby Annette becomes magical and the direction of the plot shifts towards focusing on her for a good half-hour or so in the middle, it's easy to get a bit lost.
There is, ultimately, a clear intention behind the baffling magic puppet diversion. The movie's final two songs, "Stepping Back in Time" and "Sympathy for the Abyss," are downright heart-wrenching and provide a strong pay-off for all of the film's weirder decisions. The latter number is particularly valuable in strengthening the female survivor perspective in a movie that's been more or less carried by its up-close portrayal of an abusive man. Whether the strength of this pay-off justifies the movie's pacing and focus is a harder question to answer.
If Annette were adapted into a stage musical, there's a clear place where the act break would be. It would be one of those shows where a generally great first act gives way to a mostly weaker second act salvaged by a couple of incredible late numbers. A stage musical adaptation wouldn't be too hard to pull off given the movie's heavy theatrical conceits, though whether a movie this artsy and blatantly uncommercial could ever get the funding for Broadway is a major question. Then again, the fact the Amazon mega-corporation put up millions of dollars to make this weird film in the first place feels like a minor miracle. It's hard to rate a film like Annette, which begs to be thought about in-depth. That being said, it's wholly original.
Annette opens in theaters on August 6 and will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on August 20.