A Leos Carax rock opera is a concept guaranteed to turn heads; add music by Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks and a cast headed by Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and a wooden puppet, and Annette promises boldness for better or worse. Henry (Driver) and Ann (Cotillard) are an unorthodox celebrity couple: comedian and international opera star. He performs under the name Ape of God to callously laugh-hungry audiences, while she sings tragic heroines on stages around the world to a reverent, rapturous public. Their high-profile love affair is caught through intimate love duets and flashy news reports as they jet around the world — soon with a baby Annette in tow (the aforementioned, extraordinarily expressive puppet). Henry’s jealousy, however, soon threatens to ruin their idyll.
The film is almost entirely sung through — appropriate for a story featuring a classical opera singer as a leading character. The catchy, tuneful songs are often built around looped lyrics and melodies that remain unchanged as the action around the singers grows bigger. Sometimes these lyrics are jarringly prosaic, demanding attention as the plot unfolds through them. Driver and Cotillard sang many of their songs live on set, though Cotillard’s operatic range is dubbed by young soprano Catherine Trottmann. The two voices are notably different but work to emphasise Ann’s public and private personas. Cotillard physically separates the two as well: Ann at home is softer and more effacing, while Ann on stage — or when in stage voice — commands the spotlight even when still.
Many opera fans may figure out relatively quickly where star soprano Ann’s plot will go — especially considering Carax’s demonstrable familiarity with the popular themes of the art form’s grand Romantic age. But this cross-genre dialogue is a clever, enriching addition that grapples with women’s fraught place on the classical stage and modern spotlight. If it (almost) always ends in the death of the woman, is it not enough that hers is beautiful?
In other ways, however, Henry is the more operatic protagonist as he grapples with his salvation through love and dooming, world-encompassing jealousy. If Ann is the pure-hearted and betrayed, as Carax imagines her in clips from Otello, Carmen, Madama Butterfly, and La Traviata, Henry is the mad clown Pagliaccio, sharing his rage with the world to their laughter and derision. His routines deliberately obfuscate reality and fiction, and the discomfort resulting from semi-fake confessions fractures viewers’ sense of facts, time, and place. Henry’s perspective takes primacy throughout the film, and the resulting chaos is driven by his fracturing psyche as much as the increasingly unnatural situations in which he finds himself. Driver’s singing voice (all his own) seems to grow stronger as the film goes on; whether through a performance choice or simply due to the song’s differing ranges, the growing resonance brings out a pathos under a deeply difficult person to love.
Carax’s strange vision expands the half-truths on which Henry bases his comedy to the entire universe’s meta-theatricality. The choice to cast Annette as a puppet in her infancy and toddler years heightens this world’s weirdness in a stroke of brilliance. A real baby would be a reminder of the more mundane world on the other side of the screen: a puppet’s blankness, like a mask, instead mirrors back the strange fantasies and obsessions onto its fascinating human characters. And as the music pounds and the chorus demands answers, Annette’s chimeric qualities become the eye of the hurricane.
Annette is a sweepingly ambitious, bold work that may not play to everyone’s tastes, but it achieves the greatness it aspires to on its own terms. While at times it holds an uncomfortable mirror up to real world celebrity culture and toxic masculinity, its unique language and contextualisation within filmed musicals and opera anchor its power and poignancy.
Annette is out in cinemas now and also available to stream on Amazon Prime Video
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie