Annette, Cannes review: Adam Driver’s intensity saves this musical from descending into kitsch

Director Leos Carax, the bad boy of French cinema, opens the Cannes Festival with a strange and sinister sing-off

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 07 July 2021 18:10
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Annette trailer starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard

Dir: Leos Carax. Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard. Cert 15, 140 mins

Adam Driver takes his taste for offbeat roles to a new extreme in Annette, an eccentric, highly stylised and very dark musical drama from Leos Carax that opens this year’s delayed Cannes Festival. We’ve seen him sing before – memorably, beautifully, in Marriage Story – but in this film, as his co-star Marion Cotillard put it, he sings in “complicated positions” while “mimicking cunnilingus”.

Driver, who also produced and clearly sees this as a passion project, plays Henry McHenry, a comedian with a sinister side. He is a macho, confrontational, motorbike-riding rebel whose stage show consists of misanthropic rants. Cotillard is his sweetheart, Ann, a beautiful and very successful opera star. They’re a celebrity couple, fawned over by the tabloids. Annette is their precious baby, whose arrival turns their world upside down.

The movie is co-written by Ron and Russell Mael, the duo behind US pop group Sparks. It is Carax’s first English language film. At the start of his career, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the director was known as the bad boy of French cinema. He is older now but has hardly mellowed. His subversive instincts remain intact. Much of Annette is sung rather than spoken. It is full of self-reflexive, stagey flourishes featuring choruses and bands. It has a wildly melodramatic storm scene. The most jolting idea is to portray the newborn, Annette, as a puppet – a typically Carax approach to try to disarm and unsettle viewers.

The early sequences are romantic and high spirited, the couple intoxicated with happiness and lust for one another. But it’s not long before doubts, jealousy and, finally, violence, disfigure their relationship. As Ann’s career soars, Henry’s plummets. Thanks to his outspoken antics on stage and history of sexual misdeeds, he becomes a victim of cancel culture.

In its portrait of star-crossed lovers, Annette bears some resemblance to Les Amours du Pont Neuf, the epic love story about two down-and-outs on the streets of Paris that Carax made 30 years ago with a young Juliette Binoche. The difference is that the two leads are singing for much of the time. Both have decent but not superlative voices. The fact they’re not professional singers adds to the sincerity with which they put across their lines. Annette is the one with the thunderous voice and uncanny powers.

Driver, who shows scowling antipathy to his audience on stage and has a look of Darth Vader about him throughout, brings an intensity to his role that stops the film ever descending into kitsch.

The film is, at points, truly exhilarating. The scenes of Simon Helberg as the conductor (and Ann’s ex-lover) yelling as his orchestra plays at full volume around him, and of Driver staring down a hostile audience, are staged with tremendous verve.

In its best moments, Annette is almost as rousing as the operas about sex and death that it draws from, such as Bizet’s Carmen. However, as in those operas, the storytelling risks becoming stilted and even silly. Cotillard’s role becomes ever more thankless. She is a brilliant screen actor but, here, very much plays second fiddle to Driver. The TV interludes, in which gossip columnists on some cheap celebrity talk show bitch about the lovers’ relationship, are especially grating.

Thankfully, Driver refuses to be distracted by the pantomime-like antics around him. He gives a convincing portrayal of a sensitive but self-loathing man succumbing to his baser instincts. It’s a measure of the commitment he brings to his role that he can make the audience understand the love he feels for his daughter, even if she is more mannequin than human being.

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