Overlong, a tad pretentious and with the most terrifying supporting character of the year, Leos Carax’s Annette is a musical that falls flat.
*Warning: This review contains mild spoilers*
Horror can mean different things for different people. Fears can be founded and the result of experience, or completely irrational. While Annette isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, it certainly felt like one for me. While I’m not usually one to personalise reviews, I felt it was necessary in this instance because a specific, completely irrational fear of mine shaped the way I experienced this entire film. Simply put: I’m not a fan of particular types of puppets. Marionette and ventriloquist puppets, to be exact. No thanks, put them in the bin. (I promise this is relevant.)
Usually, when going into a film I am reviewing, I like to know as little as possible. A few lines of synopsis, the director and maybe some of the principle cast. Going into Annette, I knew five things: it was a musical; it was directed by Leos Carax and soundtracked by Sparks; it starred Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, and it was received well at Cannes, where it won ‘Best Director’, ‘Best Soundtrack’ and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. So far so good, and nothing in there about a puppet.
The film itself centres around Driver’s Henry McHenry, a controversial stand-up comedian and Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux, a renowned opera singer. The unconventional pair have a whirlwind romance, and soon welcome a baby into the world, the titular Annette. But Annette is no ordinary little girl, she’s actually a marionette puppet – cue the horror – with an extraordinary gift. As the delights of newly-wed and new-parent bliss start to fade, Ann’s career ascends while Henry’s struggles, and he finds himself frustrated at being left behind.
Leaving aside the puppet issue for now, Annette is ostensibly a film about fame. It very cleverly uses its protagonists’ careers as metaphors for their roles in the relationship. Henry’s style of comedy is brash and abrasive and self-centred. He’s aggressive on stage, pacing around like a caged animal and hiding his true self behind a hooded bathrobe for most of his ‘set’. The on-screen audience interact heavily, and he seems to bolster with the attention. Ann’s work, however, centres around death. Her songs are odes to being afraid of someone and she almost curls in on herself on stage. Her climactic note comes as she falls to her demise, before shyly bowing to the enraptured audience. It’s also reflective of their roles in the film. Driver is giving it 100%, dominating the screen with a presence that drowns out Cotillard’s. She’s disappointingly underutilised throughout the entire film, and Ann’s character is not developed nearly as much as Henry’s, leading to an imbalance as the relationship starts to deteriorate.
The musical aspect is an odd choice. At times it hints at brilliance, and there are some catchy moments – one in particular being the opening, wherein Carax himself opens the film and the entire cast march down the streets of Los Angeles to a stirring number ‘So May We Start’ –, but more often than not it falls a little flat and is irritatingly repetitive. Certain songs consist of simply the same line over and over again, which starts to grate as the 140 minute run time drags on, and it’s clear to see that the project was originally conceived by Sparks as a concept album. There’s an air of pretentiousness and it feels self-indulgent at times, and the device of having musical numbers act as vehicles for exposition feels somewhat unnecessary when the ‘singing’ is the characters essentially speaking to a tune.
And now we must address the marionette in the room. Annette’s existence as a puppet – that moves independently and floats, which only added to my terror – may well be an ironic metaphor too, this time for fame. She’s trapped between two diametrically opposed parents whose relationship is incredibly unhealthy, and is used by each of them as a means to extract something from the other. But the visceral reaction I had upon seeing it coloured the entire rest of the film, and so it made that point hard to grasp whilst experiencing the film at the time. It’s stylistically edgy, but so incredibly off-putting that I found myself really disappointed.
Overall, I’m a bit mystified as to the hype. The music is so-so; the direction feels indulgent; Driver is magnetic on screen but overpowers Cotillard, and, to top it all off, the film has one of the scariest – for me, anyway, but I do hope I’m not alone – supporting characters of the year. Annette feels like it probably should have stayed an album, and saved my eyeballs and my nightmares.
Annette had its UK Premiere at the 2021 Edinburgh Film Festival on 21st August, 2021. The film is now showing on Amazon Prime Video in the US & Canada and select countries, and on MUBI the UK & Ireland.
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