Annette is a two-and-a-half-hour musical about a struggling stand-up provocateur named Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), whose media-darling marriage to opera star Ann (Marion Cotillard) changes when they welcome the birth of their daughter, Annette. This is French filmmaker Leos Carax’ English-language debut. He’s been a critical darling in the past and, thankfully, this one seems to be no exception. It’s great — an utterly maximalist twist on the A Star is Born template that takes the idea into darker, stranger territory. It’s pretty unforgettable and truly difficult to describe without spoiling. I’ll try my best.
Carax’s career is defined by stories about troubled love, and Annette is certainly no exception. Were it not for Driver’s commanding performance, it might be easy to write off the emotional core of the movie as simply another treatise about a troubled artistic man who takes advantage of the much more talented women in his life. There are visual allusions to Adam and Eve (Ann constantly biting out of an apple), but the movie is full of visual allusions to a lot of things. It’s a smorgasbord of meaning.
Henry is an anti-comedy comedian whose rants include audience participation and violent charades to keep them shocked and terrified. His set is about control, his own of the audience and of their reactions to him. He needs it. It defines him. He wants to knock them dead. And yet, despite the fact that he’s #metoo’d (in a wonderful musical number), we can’t help but still love Henry and find him compelling. There’s a reason why Driver’s inherent sex appeal, intensity and talent managed to almost single-handedly drive the most recent trilogy in a long-running franchise. Henry is a bad man, one who doesn’t know how to love.
This contrasts with Ann. Henry wants to slay his audience whereas Ann dies for them each night. There’s an ongoing, classically gendered motif at play in Annette as the story progresses and allows their metaphorical artistic goals to become literal. In a lesser movie, that might be bothersome. In Annette, Carax manages to mine the idea of “talented woman may redeem troubled man’s career” down a much more modern, disturbing path.
I haven’t mentioned the titular Annette much; to say anything in detail about her would reveal too much about the true nature of Annette, which is best discovered in the watching. Her role furthers the Henry’s debauched exploitation of Ann’s talent as his own success wanes. Ideally, becoming a parent changes a person. But we know that’s not necessarily true for everyone, particularly not narcissists. What is Henry to do with this special daughter, imbued with a unique talent?
All of the music in Annette is written by the Sparks Brothers, who also make fun appearances throughout. I’m not an expert in musicals and can’t offer any insight as to how Annette stacks up to others. I can say, however, that Annette is the most exciting movie I’ve seen in 2021 — bold, confident, and fun. Some call it pretentious; I’d say it just has ambition and conviction to spare.