James Berardinelli review - **1/2 out of ****
A breath of fresh air? Or a pretentious mess? Perhaps a little of both. It’s easy to see why a mainstream viewer might quickly lose patience with Annette but I found the film’s embrace of unconventionality to be bracing and energizing…at least to a point. The problem is that it goes on too long. There comes a point when the weirdness and non-standard storytelling ceases to be effective and becomes a detriment. The approach favored by director Leos Carax (whose best-known feature, Pola X, reached screens 22 years ago) focuses the viewer’s attention on the film’s style at the expense of character identification. The two leads, comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and opera singer Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), are kept at arm’s length. Although that works during the first half, when the narrative progresses through a series of musical numbers, stage performances, and TV clips, it creates a problem for confronting the emotional upheaval of the second half. The ending is forceful, to be sure, but it takes too long for the movie to arrive at that moment.
Carax and the Mael Brothers (a.k.a. “Sparks,” who conceived the story and wrote the screenplay and songs) perceive Annette as a fairy tale that gradually turns bleak. The comedic elements, although never lighthearted, become less playful and more acerbic as the running time lengthens. Carax masters the changing tone by rejecting a traditional narrative progression, but it becomes increasingly hard to stay invested in the story as the artificiality ascends. Adam Driver’s volcanic performance arrests the attention, refusing to allow the viewer to turn away, but Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard’s restrained portrayal of Ann causes her to exist perpetually in Driver’s shadow. A more even pairing might have yielded a stronger dynamic. There’s little chemistry between them, although that’s as much a result of Carax’s style as a mismatch between the actors.
Unconventionally presented as it may be, there is a story. It hones in on the love affair between Henry and Ann, who are madly in love as the movie starts (breaking the cinematic tradition of showing all the stages of a romance). The pair become engaged then have a child, whom they name Annette. She’s played/represented by a marionette until she’s older, when child actress Devyn McDowell steps into the part. In A Star Is Born fashion, Henry’s career goes into a tailspin as Ann’s skyrockets. Six women emerge to level charges of abuse against Henry. A private cruise ends in tragedy when Ann goes overboard. Later, the focus shifts to Annette, who develops a startling singing voice not unlike her mother’s. Henry and Ann’s former accompanist (Simon Helberg) launch a musical act with Annette singing; it becomes a worldwide sensation, but Henry is haunted by his previous actions and spirals ever-deeper into paranoia and depression.
The songs in Annette are mostly unmemorable. The possible exception occurs during the self-aware opening scene when Carax and the Maels wander on screen and begin singing “So May We Start?” They are soon joined by Driver and Cotillard and the group proceeds to sing and dance their way across Santa Monica. The music is infectious; its application is ingenious. Alas, nothing in the film’s remaining 135-odd minutes comes close in terms of audience engagement. Subsequent songs include repetitive lyrics like “we love each other so much,” which is played ad nauseum.
For a while, it’s difficult to let go of the promise of the prologue and some residual energy remains for a while as the love story is introduced via TMZ-influenced Entertainment News Breaks and glimpses of Henry and Ann’s performances. He’s a cross between Andy Kaufman and Andrew Dice Clay. She’s Julie Andrews with a perfect soprano’s intonation. Together, they make beautiful music. For a while. But, as their romance fades so too does the movie. Nevertheless, Annette dares to be different and, at a time when so many movies feel like cookie-cutter representations of better past tellings, there’s more than a little virtue of taking an offbeat and oddball path, even if the detour is too long and has a few too many potholes.