“Do it in your head.”
We “start” with Leos Carax as an audio engineer in the studio with Sparks (brothers Ron and Russell Mael) recording. The film becomes alive when they walk out on Santa Monica Blvd. with stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. It’s a radical meta explosion that had me crying tears of joy. The experience was living up to everything I had hoped for and I mentally prepared to give the film a 10/10.
It all came crashing down as Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) plays a horrible, brutal comedian who meets an opera singer named Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard). She will save him from himself, right? She will make everything okay? He will not devolve into a “me too” Harvey Weinstein type, will he? He will not throw away everything he’s had just for one more drink, will he? Oh no, he couldn’t, because this is a beautiful musical, not a “let’s cast a sympathetic, popular actor to play the most despicable kind of person with a truly insidious nature” type of film. Adam Driver would never play that kind of role would he (oops, did we forget that he is Darth Vader’s grandson in the Star Wars universe)? Driver’s character in Marriage Story, Charlie, punches a wall. Henry McHenry tells jokes in poor taste, tickles, douses, strangles, and brutalizes everything in sight. Driver himself is not the most adept singer and most of the time he feels miscast as a comedian, so at times it’s hard to sit through. Ultimately, he turns in a powerful performance, though.
Marion Cotillard’s Ann is beautiful, graceful, and sexy; she can do no wrong. While her character is idealized and not quite as fleshed out as Henry’s, Cotillard still gives an amazing performance. The film takes place over several years. Her changing hairstyles are a marvel: blonde, brunette, red, short, long.
The film constantly flirts with death. In the beginning, Carax narrates that “the exits are clearly marked”, no doubt tempting some audience members who will not stand for the creation and the subsequent annihilation of the characters who we were beginning to love. The Henry/Ann story kind of feels similar to A Star Is Born: as Ann’s star rises, Henry falls deeper into a literal abyss.
The real headscratcher, though, is the title character: Annette, a puppet. When she is born, we see her heart glowing and it’s beautiful. Then a clown face is revealed. The audience laughed at the awkwardness and the ugliness of a wooden puppet being used to portray the child of Ann and Henry. Cotillard tenderly caresses the wooden girl and Driver in all seriousness has conversations with this puppet, coaxing her. At one point, Annette comes alive as a little 5-year-old girl played by Devyn McDowell.
The soundtrack by Sparks and the amazing cinematography by Caroline Champetier cannot 100% make up for the face that Henry is a character who loses his desire, rationalizes his poor behavior, and makes confessions under his breath like he’s Robert Durst.
I’m just sad that at the beginning, I felt like this was a movie worth going out and risking death for, and toward the end, I felt stunned that someone had financed this and that all the actors had gone along with it.
In any case, you probably won’t see another film like this in your lifetime. However, at the Q&A, director Leos Carax said he was going to have a hard time making another film with just dialogue and without the actors singing. So who knows? We may get another Carax musical.