‘Annette’: This off-kilter musical is (figuratively) off-key

“Annette” (2021) – “So, may we start?”

Yes, please do! 

Director Leos Carax’s (“Holy Motors” (2012)) film opens inside a recording studio, which could be located anywhere.  The producer speaks French, so one might think that this 139-minute movie-experience could be set in Paris.

Au contraire, mon frère. 

Ron and Russell Mael (a.k.a. Sparks), six other musicians, a few backup singers, Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), and Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) soon march out of the melodious indoor space.  They sing the said quote and reveal that they work in The City of Angels rather than The City of Lights.  If you had any doubt, the on-screen players finish their rhythmic caucus in front of a building that displays “Santa Monica Discount Store” in massive block lettering.

Here we are, and here they are.

Ann and Henry are renowned entertainers, both local and worldwide.  She’s an opera singer in all the traditional senses, and he’s a comedian in all the unorthodox ones.  Henry’s cheerless one-man show is about as amusing as a fender bender during a morning commute, although not a fatal one.  Look, no one is hurt, but the aggravation is painful.  He’s a cross between Jake LaMotta and Steven Wright, but rather than deliver clever one-liners, Mr. McHenry drones on about minor complaints and emotional aches, pains, and lows of his day.  Everything sounds miserable, even the highs. 

“Annette” cast

He addresses thoughts like “I met a girl” with all the enthusiasm of emptying a dryer’s lint trap, but Ann and Henry are a couple.  Optimists say that opposites attract, but more often than not, such pairs invite heartache.   Even SBN, this movie’s ever-present news channel, calls them The Beauty and The Bastard. 

That sounds about right. 

Well, harmonious sounds and wondrous sights dominate “Annette”, Carax’s eccentric, modern-day musical that carries a classic theme: a flawed romantic relationship, and in this case, it has a Hollywood backdrop. 

According to Eric Kohn’s July 10, 2021 IndieWire article, the Maels initially wrote 80 songs, but naturally, they dropped the number for the film.  Ann, Henry, and others regularly, but not entirely, sing through everyday moments as the movie harkens back to shades of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964).  Here, however, the “happy” couple croon through lyrical tracks rather than Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) serenading actual, ordinary discourse in the 1964 film. 

Indeed, Cotillard and Driver sing.  No, they aren’t Lady Gaga or Ed Sheeran, respectively, but they admirably execute their melodic marks, as well as this off-key critic receiving three years of voice coaching, two years of mediation, and one stiff drink before actually singing on-camera.  The leads give brave performances, including a striking, one-of-a-kind scene during “We Love Each Other So Much”. 

“So May We Start” and “We Love Each Other So Much”, at least to my ears, are the most memorable tunes, but this is also unfortunate, as they both appear way early in the first act.  Even though Marion and Adam warble in tune and the rest of the pieces are competent enough, they don’t stick afterward.  The music – naturally – follows the couple’s arc, as Carax’s movie has a “The Artist” (2011) narrative-vibe, plus another familiar relationship, but I shouldn’t reveal that Ann and Henry might share a Kevin Bacon-Kyra Sedgwick connection or a Kevin Federline-Britney Spears one.  

Henry (Adam Driver) and Ann (Marion Cotillard)

Life could get ugly, or perhaps not, but you might ask yourself:  Do you care?

Carax spends plenty of time flushing out Henry’s persona, which is stoic, introspective, and terribly self-loathing, as he wonders out loud, “What I see in her is obvious.  What she sees in me, it’s a little more puzzling.”

Cinematographer Caroline Champetier and production designer Florian Sanson frequently feature green as a seemingly dominant hue, from Henry’s on-stage boxer’s robe to his accompanying singers’ dresses to other noticeable emerald splashes that flash across the camera’s eye. 

Green with envy, much?

Meanwhile, we don’t really know Ann at all, except that she’s a beautiful, successful celebrity with her name in the brightest lights and that she does reveal – in the most unambiguous way – that she loves Henry “so much.”   Otherwise, she’s agreeable and good-natured enough, like your neighbor down the street.  The one who walks her dog every morning, and your friendship consists of trading waves, hellos, and courteous smiles. 

She seems nice.

The script doesn’t offer enough screen time to develop Ann, but then again, Henry sees her as a trophy, so I suppose that’s how we should view her too. 

It’s just a shame that Carax films Cotillard at a distance or in the shadows during a couple of Ann’s opera moments.  (Cotillard sings throughout the picture, but the operatic scenes appear dubbed, at least I assume so.)  The film robs the audience of a take-your-breath-away moment, like in “The Greatest Showman” (2017) as Rebecca Ferguson’s Jenny Lind delivers chills and jaw drops in spades. 

For those who’ve seen “The Greatest Showman”, all together now, “These hands could hold the world, but it’ll never be enough.  Never be enough…for me.” 

We don’t get that here.

Henry (Driver)

Instead, “Annette” offers a dysfunctional relationship between the Prom Queen and the Bad Boy, but there’s a chance of salvation with their child named in the film’s title.  To capture our fancy, Carax offers popping visuals, including several lush Southern California creature comforts, a boat scene purposefully designed on an old-school sound stage, a wooden puppet inexplicably standing in for a human being, and that’s just for starters.

Meanwhile, Ann and Henry state – or sometimes mumble – their successes and troubles via song, and Simon Helberg is thrown in, almost as an afterthought, as a “critical” supporting player who isn’t vital to the story at all. 

It’s all a bit frustrating, but by design.  Yes, a few big on-screen events are admittedly unforgettable, but as the end credits roll, you could be kicking yourself that we let the characters start.  

⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by: Leos Carax

Written by: Ron Mael and Russell Mael

Starring: Marion Cotillard, Adam Driver, and Simon Helberg

Runtime: 139 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: Amazon Studios

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