Annette ★★★½

As depressing as Marion Cotillard's and Adam Driver's respective romances are, I figured their courtship would be an all-out French opera. I should warn you snobs that not even Leos Carax himself could prevent the American version of one of his romances from being a star-studded pop musical, but at least "La La Land" refers to Pacific Palisades instead of Hollywood. Ron and Russell Mael are now composing "sparks" between Driver's Henry McHenry and Cotillard's Ann Defrasnoux, the unlikely passion between a maverick stand-up comedian and an opera diva being such a tabloid scandal that a maverick stand-up comedian and an opera diva are tabloid stories at all. The European fantasies about American pop culture continue with Ann having a much more successful career than Henry, as well as recurrent dreams about her husband being ousted as a serial abuser. Just as a desperate effort to salvage this marriage ends in tragedy, baby Annette develops her mother's exact singing voice. And so it becomes a literal "A Star is Born", as Annette becomes a global sensation, while Henry spirals deeper into drunken despair and failure that a secret lover may yet exploit. Yup, it's about as French as an opera... composed by two guys from Pacific Palisades can get, and it's a hell of a show if you can bear it.

Whether you're not into radical French experimentalism, cheesy musicals or oppressive operas, this film has a little of everything to alienate general audiences with its constant drive on intensely high-concept music Leos Carax's trademark quirky overproduction (Marionette baby, because child star exploitation I guess!). The hyper-aestheticized storytelling being grounded by your familiarity with this generic, ridiculously melodramatic romantic tragedy is most ironic, and the filmmakers know it. There's an overarching sense of humor in how this takes its tropes so far over the top or openly mocks them, clearly in some lament of comedy and tabloid pop culture trivializing the human experience, and of opera and theatrical/cinematic melodrama reducing it to an artificial formula. They're compelling themes, but they're so elementary and heavy-handed, and their expression is in the story exaggerating and deconstructing itself. It's all about the complexity of the characters, at least on paper, where they're still laying themselves bare in histrionic actions and beat-you-over-the-head lyrics that often sail past cheesy. In execution, yeah, this is two-and-a-half hours of Carax continuing to freewheel eccentric, exhausting style that only a self-awaredly extreme opera can ground. Whatever you're not into with this bizarre behemoth, by gum, this lofty epic pulls it off pretty dazzlingly.

Sparks is a decent enough art rock band, but Ron and Russell Mael's soundtrack for this film is just plain transcendent, a somehow seamless cacophony of complicatedly hyper-produced pop, infectious jazz rudiment, thunderous rock and staggering Broadway histrionics around monumental, legitimate opera. Wagnerian as this score is, the ham and cheese of usually snappy lyrics are redeemed by an aria purity of complex emotional expression, backing up terrific vocals. As impressive as anything is how this near-sung-thru soundtrack gives an accessible substance, a narrative focal point, to the psychedelic dreamscape Leos Carax always drags viewers into by the nose hairs. If nothing else, it's hard to get bored with Carax's wacky production values, kaleidoscopic editing, comically overscaled cinematography and ethereal pace, this maddeningly excessive, technically exemplary style taking the auteur's always overwrought emotions to absurd new heights. Where the Maels' stellar music concentrates these emotions on deafening terms, their and Carax's script actually shape the chaos with deep and tightly developed expressions of complexly tragic characters. Backed by the great Marion Cotillard and one of Adam Driver's most powerful performances yet, this mighty melodrama is always anchored by a sincerity of the roles' drawn-out and raw spirits. It's a beautiful mammoth, a soulful pleasant surprise that should enchant, but also aggressively alienate in its artistry

Wrapping constant, oppressively surreal style and music around a deliberately uber-melodramatic story for heavy-handed self-satire and writing to somehow both regress and over-express, this may be as cartoonishly pretentious as any of its filmmaker's efforts, but owns up to those pretenses on a phenomenal soundtrack and enchanting aesthetic, while fine-tuning them on richly defined characters and performances, to compose Leos Carax's "Annette" as a technically spellbinding and emotionally sparkling avant-pop opera.

3.5/5 - Good

Cameron Wayne liked this review