Annette ★★½

Leos Carax's last film Holy Motors - released almost a decade ago now - included a brief Entr'acte where lead actor Denis Lavant breaks off from the episodic narrative to go to a church, where, in a single long take, he and a chorus of strangers give a rousing performance of R.L Burnside's "Let My Baby Ride" on the accordion. After said interlude, he returns to the action and the film continues as before. It's a sterling moment of movie magic and despite the film's bizarre wonders, easily my favourite part of the film. I bring this up here as there's a distinct similarity between this and the best scene in his long awaited follow up Annette. As the film begins, the band Sparks - who wrote the film's script and songs - tune up in their recording studio. After the opening bars of the opening number "So May We Start", the brothers stand up and walk out, followed by the backing singers and eventually joined by the two leads. In the same backwards tracking shot, we follow them down into the street and at the end of the number the actors disperse, off to their places for their respective first scenes. It's a fantastic, witty and exuberant overture, set to far and away the best song in the film, that sets a perfect stage for any drama to follow. It's a giddy high the film will never again come close to.
These two leads are Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) an alternative stand-up comic (in the acknowledgements, Driver thanks Bill Burr and Chris Rock, his presumed inspirations for the comedian's act) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) a beloved soprano. Each at the top of their field, they shock the world when they fall in love and rapidly marry and conceive a child, but frictions soon spark between them as Henry is unable to reconcile his stage persona with hers, his art flounders, he grows jealous of her success and turns to drink. As Ann is an opera singer who, Henry jokes, is always dying, you may see what kind of tragedy this leads to. The performances of these two leads are both the height of acting virtuosity. Driver isn't much of a singer but he acquits himself better than I would have thought and he maintains his status as one of the most daring and intense performers working in Hollywood, it's hard to imagine anyone else in this role. Cotillard is somewhat wasted in her more one note role but she's as luminous as ever. The acting isn't the only thing that's first rate, the film won Leos Carax the Cannes film festival's award for best director and I see that absolutely, the staging, production design, costuming, cinematography, editing and sound mixing are phenomenal. I have no doubt that this film will be garlanded with technical awards when the time comes. This technical virtuosity results in some outwardly stunning moments, yet I'm forced to admit that the film itself just isn't good at all. As I left the screening, I overheard among the few other audience members conversations, the assertion that the movie was "just too long" and I felt like interjecting. That's not the half of the issues with Annette.
The film was written by Ron and Russel Mael of Sparks, and songwriters they might be, they're not scriptwriters and Annette is just all over the place. The film is a heady, mixed up cocktail of modern celebrity satire, arch pastiche of performance itself, and an oddly sincere tale of a beautiful young girl whose gifts are forged in the fires of exploitation and murder. I would dearly wish that any of these elements came together but they just don't, instead fraying themselves out for over two hours. After the opening act, the film never works again and by the time the ending comes around it’s clinging to its last thread with a death grip, trying desperately to tie some kind of knot on it before it too slips through its fingers. The two brothers simply don't have a story or a sense of purpose, instead taking the ideas they have and throwing them together one after another, putting the film together very much like an album, sticking songs end to end and massaging them into one another in an overlong, disjointed, tonally muddled jam session. There's no sense of consistent theme or emotional through line to motivate the audience, so you just continually lose sight of what they think they're doing. Driver does his best with his inherently dislikable role, but even he, the man who made a literal Darth Vader wannabe the most fascinating figure in Star Wars canon, can't save McHenry. An exploitative alcoholic narcissist who sings all his dialogue is just too tough a sell for any performer to bring to life.
There are moments when you have to admire the sheer verve and theatrical stylism at play and sometimes the film does seem to be getting it right. McHenry's act is a finely observed and deeply mannered parody of alternative comedy, one which is never less than recognisable as the kind of thing a comic like him might do on stage and an audience might find impressive. Meanwhile, Ann's performance of operatic standards (her onstage performances are the only songs not written by Sparks) is treated with a mixture of sincere reverence and knowing digs at its own formulae. Occasionally it's digs at modern culture feel en pointe, but more often than not they come across as incredibly tone deaf like the nightmare dream sequence where McHenry is outed as an abuser, an irreverent and ultimately pointless detour and possibly the sequence when my investment in the film finally came off life support.
One can't help but admire the many creative risks taken with Annette, but very, very rarely do they pay off. For all the film's showboating and theatrics, Annette just doesn't have anywhere to go or offer the audience except the spectacle of world class talent flexing their creative muscles. The film consistently feels like its making itself up as it goes, trying everything it can think of and killing not a single darling. That in itself might appeal to some audiences and it's clear why some have embraced the film so unreservedly, but the measure of a film's success is what the viewer takes from it, and Annette was for me a mildly intriguing but ultimately meaningless exercise in postmodern melodrama, with nothing to say about love, guilt, fame or even artistry itself.