Annette: Big, bold and wildly original

Adam Driver is monstrously good in Leos Carax’s gorgeous musical

Annette
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Director: Leos Carax
Cert: 18
Genre: Musical
Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Running Time: 2 hrs 20 mins

Workingfrom a libretto by the cult band Sparks, cult director Leos Carax’s English-language debut is unlikely to please mayonnaise mainstream tastes. But for those seeking surprises, spectacle, and shadows, Annette is a marvel like no other.

A series of big, ravishing tableaux by cinematographer Caroline Champetier can feel like being trapped in the best ’80s pop video this side of Propaganda’s Duel. It’s a welcome sensation. The story, too, in keeping with the arch lyricism of Ron Mael, is deceptively ambitious.

Adam Driver brings all of his sexual and screen charisma to bear on a knotted depiction of toxic masculinity. He dwarves his screen partners and – in one memorable sequence – scoops up a fellow actor as if they were a kitten.

Driver’s  Henry McHenry, a shocking stand-up comedian who performs as The Ape of God, is a classic movie bad boy (not unlike Guillaume Depardieu in Carax’s Pola X), replete with a magnificent mane of hair, a motorbike and an act that – in keeping with many of the last century’s best comedians – leaves the audience wondering if he’s hilarious or terrifying. Even Henry’s warm-up routine – a flurry of air punches thrown from a ratty dressing gown – recalls Raging Bull’s Jake La Motta at his most intemperate.

Henry, as he tells his audience, has fallen for soprano Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard). They are very different artists: “I killed them, destroyed them, murdered them,” he tells Ann after a gig. “I saved them”, she replies after her opera.

Their romance is played out in the musical number We Love Each Other So Much – one of Sparks’ all-chorus earworms in the fashion of My Baby’s Taking Me Home – and in a sex act that was never included in either Busby Berkeley or Bob Fosse’s choreography. The couple soon have a baby, played by a wooden marionette, named Annette.

TMZ-styled news reports chronicle the troubled relationship that follows. Does a series of #MeToo allegations ruin Henry’s career? Has domesticity dulled the “realness” he requires to perform? Was he always bound towards the series of tragic events that define the second half of the film?

Sparks’ clever songs and Driver’s increasingly monstrous performance leave us to ponder these conundrums. This is a film that consistently foregrounds its artifice as it explodes the edgy notion of “authenticity”. Moonlit shipwrecks, desert phantasmagoria, and the mannequin of the title all work to challenge the idea that “murdering” your fans is of greater artistic worth.

Another act, another twist: upon realising that his daughter Annette has a special gift, Henry recruits Ann’s former accompanist (Simon Helberg, in an affecting performance) to leverage his way back into showbusiness.

A final showdown, one that strays into the same territory as Henry James’ bad parenting fable What Maisie Knew, makes for a powerful parting shot and a tantalisingly voguish development at a time when conservatorship is seldom out of the headlines.

Towards the end of Edgar Wright’s crowd-pleasing new Sparks documentary, the duo perform their 1990s hit When Do I Get to Sing My Way?. The gorgeous, energetic, wildly original Annette is surely their grand Sinatra moment.

In cinemas on September 3rd

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic

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