Annette, the fragile child at the heart of the director Leos Carax’s new film, is a perfect avatar for a work that can drift from odd to distressing in just one scene. She’s the daughter of the hulking comedian Henry McHenry (played by Adam Driver) and the winsome opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), and is blessed with a singing voice that attracts the attention of millions. She’s also a wooden puppet. And did I mention that this movie is a musical?
Plenty of films defy easy description, but summing up Annette is particularly trying. This operatic fable of love, celebrity, and self-destruction features tragic plotting worthy of Puccini and music by the brothers Ron and Russell Mael (best known as the band Sparks). The movie is weird and wrenching, asking the viewer to find humanity within the unreal tale of a puppet child’s rise to fame. It is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting this Friday, but if you feel comfortable seeing it at a theater, Annette is worth being locked in with.
A new Carax film is rare enough to be a cinematic event. Annette is his first feature since 2012’s Holy Motors, a phantasmagoric trip through the lives of various Parisian characters that was one of the most unique movies of the prior decade. Some of his other works, such as the stylish AIDS parable Mauvais Sang and the mesmerizing romance The Lovers on the Bridge, are among my all-time favorites. So my expectations for Annette were high, especially given that Carax had wangled in the A-list Hollywood star Driver, rather than his usual leading actor, the spindly Frenchman Denis Lavant.
It’s a worthy collaboration. Driver has always been an imposing presence on-screen, but Carax transforms him into a semi-feral brute. In the film, Henry takes the stage for a comedy set in a boxing robe, muses angrily about death and cruelty, openly derides his spectators, and never once provides a traditional laugh line. The audience eats it up. His monologue recalls many toxic celebrities’ real-life meltdowns—no matter how nasty his material gets, the crowd only wants more.
The tension between Henry’s fame and his monstrousness drives Annette, which was written by the Mael brothers and Carax. Henry is a living horror show who proclaims himself “The Ape of God” and spews provocative material. But his relationship with Ann is undeniably tender; early in the film, they croon an earwormy ballad titled—literally—“We Love Each Other So Much,” first while dancing together in the woods, and later mid-coitus. Initially, Carax and Sparks seem to be spinning a modern fable à la Beauty and the Beast, with the charming Ann (whose opera performances are as delicate as her husband’s comedy is not) taming the ferocious Henry.
Then their wooden puppet baby is born, and any illusion that Annette might be a simple romance is shattered. The film’s 141-minute running time encompasses death, revenge, artistic exploitation, and hauntings from beyond the grave. Carax leans into the witchcraft of cinema everywhere that he can: A storm consumes the couple as they dance in front of a screen projecting a typhoon, and later Annette sings at a ridiculous-sounding sporting event called the “Hyper Bowl” whose crassness rivals that of Henry’s stand-up routines. And then there’s the puppet baby herself, a bizarre and beautiful child whose entire existence feels like a bespoke nightmare.
Perhaps her nature as an object of entertainment is a commentary on the freakish attention paid to celebrities’ children; maybe Carax just didn’t want to work with a young actor. Whatever the reason for her state of being, the puppet is mesmerizing. As Henry and Ann care for and sometimes neglect this sad creature, Carax tests the limits of the audience’s empathy—can they feel for something so obviously artificial? Does that artificiality heighten the viewer’s love of Annette? Carax pioneered a movement in French moviemaking called the “cinéma du look,” which emphasizes slickness and unreality, and in Annette his visuals are as affected as possible, befitting both the melodramatic story and its glitzy setting.
I won’t spoil the plot, but rest assured that many terrible things happen, mostly at Henry’s hands. Still, the tale is not one about man’s evil. The film explores the poisonous nature of fame, asking whether Henry’s dark acts are premeditated or fated. Did casting himself as a public monster make him a private one, or had he always been that vicious? The conundrum rattled me after I left the theater; had I been invested in an inherently malicious character, or could his moral downfall have been prevented, perhaps, if his cheering audience had been silenced? More than the constant singing, that’s the way Annette most resembles the sublime tragedy of great opera: You know the sad ending is coming, but the entire time, you're wishing for a way to stop it.