Whenever I mention a movie to someone and they ask me what it is about, I struggle. Sure, on the surface, a movie begins by setting up a story and ends by concluding it (many of them do, at least). However, a movie isn’t purely about its story. If it were, every remake would be exactly as good as the original, and we all know this isn’t true. Instead, a movie is about how it is about its story; how it tells it and what it uses it to explore.
If someone were to ask me what the drama Annette (streaming on Amazon Prime) is about I could tell them that it is about the relationship between a controversial stand-up comedian and a beloved soprano. Oh, it is also a musical. But that wouldn’t even begin to explain what makes it so unique and fascinating. It defies easy synopsis. It is about art and performance, reality and artificiality, among many other things. It is one of the best movies of the year.
Henry is a popular comic. Ann is a famous opera singer. The seemingly mismatched couple quickly fall in love, capturing the interest of the public (as seen in periodic clips from a tabloid tv show). Then their careers start to move in different directions, they have a baby and their story takes some strange turns.
Henry is played by Adam Driver with tremendous passion and bubbling resentment. Stalking around a stage, swinging his mic cord, his act features him essentially daring his audience to laugh at his disdain, while they respond to him in a kind of chorus. Conversely, Ann, portrayed by Marion Cotillard in a less showy, yet equally strong, performance, sings for an adoring audience. Theirs are two very different kinds of performance. She allows the audience to be passive; he forces them to actively respond. The same is true in their personal lives, where he tends to create confrontations and she is closer to a participant. Cotillard is sweet and graceful; Driver is manipulative and self-destructive. Both of them are fantastic.
The director of Annette is Leos Carax, making his first feature since 2012’s brilliant Holy Motors. That was about a day in the life of a man who travels to appointments in a limousine, embodying a different character at each stop. Carax is obviously interested in the idea of “reality.”
As I mentioned earlier, Annette is a musical. Very little of it is not set to music (the screenplay and all of the songs were written by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, from the band Sparks). Musicals, by their nature, are artificial. Characters suddenly break into song to express their feelings. Carax does not care about displaying “realism.”
In addition to music, he uses clearly fake backdrops in some shots and has a major character that is represented by a puppet. He does not do any of this without a specific point. Each song exists for a reason (there are no big dance numbers here), in terms of both plot and theme. It is operatic in that way. There are songs that seem to be directed at the viewer, such as the opening number or a couple by the man who plays the music for Ann’s act (referred to only as The Accompanist, played well by Simon Helberg). The backdrops heighten the reality of the world these people live in. As for the puppet, it is used as a significant metaphor for how Henry lives his life. Much like the audience for Henry’s stand-up, the audience for this movie may have a hard time being passive observers.
As you can probably tell, Annette is a complicated production, likely destined to be extremely divisive. A simple answer to “what is it about?” is impossible without stripping it of what makes it so compelling. Though a thorough exploration of it would contain far too many spoilers and you should really experience it for yourself. As a selling point, I’ll say that Adam Driver gives the best performance of his career, the music by Sparks fits perfectly with their story and Leos Carax may make challenging movies, but he definitely doesn’t make boring ones. I can’t imagine there will be a movie released this year that I will be more excited to revisit.
4½ out of 5
Adam Driver as Henry McHenry
Marion Cotillard as Ann Defrasnoux
Simon Helberg as The Accompanist
Directed by Leos Carax
Written by Ron Mael and Russell Mael