This year’s Cannes Film Festival opener stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in a musical cum celebrity satire. It’s variously embarrassing and delightful, writes Nicholas Barber.
The opening-night film at this year’s Cannes Festival is an embarrassing folly that is almost impossible to sit through. It’s also a daring, unique passion project that has you gasping with delight. I tipped back and forth between these two assessments so often during the 140 minutes of Annette that I gave myself a dose of seasickness.
The film is a surreal, avant-garde rock opera directed by Leos Carax, maker of The Lovers on The Bridge and the fabulously bonkers Holy Motors. It’s written, with some help from Carax, by Ron and Russell Mael, aka veteran pop duo Sparks (the subject of Edgar Wright’s new documentary, The Sparks Brothers). The Maels can be spotted here and there in Annette, but their main onscreen appearance is in the uplifting opening scene, which has the band rattling through a song, So May We Begin, in a recording studio. After the first verse, the Maels stride out into the street, still singing, pursued by their quartet of backing vocalists. As they process around Los Angeles they are joined by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, among others, and the camera stays just ahead of them (a bit like in The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony video) in one unbroken shot. It’s a joyous sequence – the most joyous part of the film, in fact – and it promises that we’re in for a rousing, arthouse version of La La Land. As it turns out, Annette is closer to an arthouse version of A Star Is Born. The first hour of the film, at any rate, is about the fraying relationship between two performers, as a woman’s career rises and a man’s falls. After that it gets much weirder.
Driver plays Henry McHenry, a bilious comedian who likes to wear a dressing gown and slippers for his misanthropic (and dreadful) stand-up show, The Ape of God. Cotillard plays his girlfriend, Ann, an opera diva who is considered by the world to be far too good for him: a report on “Showbizz News” is captioned “Beauty and The Bastard”. Nonetheless, Henry and Ann marry and have a baby, Annette, who happens to be a creepy, Chucky-like wooden puppet with the glowing heart of ET The Extra Terrestrial.
There were times when the film was so crass yet so outlandish that I wondered how it ever got made – and I suspect that the two-word answer is ‘Adam Driver’
The most captivating thing about all this is that the film is sung-through – that is, there is hardly any dialogue that hasn’t been set to the Maels’ pounding score. Henry and Ann are always singing, whether they’re fending off the paparazzi, hurtling through California on Henry’s motorbike, having sex, or, in Cotillard’s best moment, backstroking across the swimming pool outside their secluded house. It’s a wonderfully strange conceit, although anyone hoping for a toe-tapping musical might be disappointed that the Maels favour repeated chants over witty rhymes and complete songs. It gets tiresome to hear people intoning “Why did you become a comedian” and “We love each other so much” over and over again. Another sticking point is that, to begin with, the film’s formal radicalism isn’t matched by its conventional visuals or its banal story. Once the novelty of the relentless music wears off, you realise that Annette is a humourless, superficial celebrity satire that feels a decade or three out of date.
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