Annette begins with a proclamation: “Breathing will not be tolerated.” What follows is meant to be taken in whole. For if you were to take it bit by bit, the whole thing would fall apart. Only totality can save Annette.

Though I’m not sure that helps. This is the story of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), a famous stand-up comedian who treats his audience with contempt, turns the stage into therapy sessions with backup singers, and tells not one joke. That he is famous says much about how the creators of Annette feel about audiences.

And what an interesting collaboration of creators: writers Ron and Russell Mael, they of Sparks, and director Leos Carax, he of Holy MotorsMauvais Sang, and others. Annette kicks off with all three of them in a recording studio—the Maels at the mic, Carax behind the board—with the song, “So May We Start.” No question mark. There are a lot of songs in Annette, and there’s plenty more downtime in between. Neither component really comes together, though that might be intentional. There’s a thread of artificiality running through Annette as if the Maels and Carax never want you to forget that it’s all a show.

Back to Henry McHenry. He seems cut from the same cloth as Lenny Bruce, though Driver thanks both Chris Rock and Bill Burr in the credits. He must have learned how to stand on stage convincingly from them. Later in the movie, six women come forward and allege Henry McHenry of improprieties and abuse. Maybe Louis C.K. is a better parallel. Not that it matters much: Once introduced, the whole scandal is tossed off. There’s a lot that’s cast aside in Annette, even characters. My favorite is Mr. Professional Conductor (Simon Helberg), who loves Ann from afar.

Photos courtesy Amazon Studios.

Ann (Marion Cotillard) is a soprano for the Los Angeles opera. She’s as famous on her stage as Henry McHenry is on his. And they’re married. That they become a couple says much about how the creators of Annette feel about romance and the arts. That last sentence was intentional—there are a lot of echoes in Annette. My favorite one involves Mr. Professional Conductor, but I promise not to spoil it for you.

Then there’s Annette, Ann and Henry McHenry’s daughter. She’s a puppet. Really. Everyone holds her and treats her like a real girl, but she’s an impressive and utterly unsettling puppet. She also has a heavenly gift that brings more attention and fame to Henry McHenry and Ann. Celebrity is like a wheel spinning from within with no end.

I have no idea what to make of Annette. Carax, working with cinematographer Caroline Champetier, photographs Annette primarily in masters, heightening the artificiality of the sets. Ditto for the Annette puppet. The more you look at it, the less you buy it. Same, too, for the songs: They feel like honest expressions corroded by angry cynicism. But then the end almost buys it back—almost. 

What Annette has is personality. No one other than Leos Carax could have directed Annette. No one other than Ron and Russell Mael could have written these songs, these scenarios. Annette has ambition. I’ll grant it that. If only it had a little restraint to go with.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Annette (2021)
Directed by Leos Carax
Screenplay by Russell Mael
Story by Ron and Russell Mael
Music by Sparks
Produced by Charles Gillibert, Paul-Dominique Win Vacharasinthu
Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Amazon Studios, Rated R, Running time 139 minutes, Opens Aug. 6, 2021, in select theaters. Available on Amazon Prime starting Aug. 20, 2021.

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