‘Annette’ movie review: Adam Driver, Sparks and a marionette shine in Leos Carax musical


A tour de force performance from Adam Driver, evocative music by Sparks, and some incredible marionette design and manipulation highlight the beguiling but brilliant Annette, an L.A.-set musical from Holy Motors director Leos Carax that opened the 2021 Cannes film festival yesterday and simultaneously premiered in Czech cinemas.

Driver stars as Henry McHenry in Annette, a vitriolic stand-up comic who ho has found success through an utter disdain for his profession and audience. Marion Cotillard is opera soprano Ann, who wins over her audiences through genuine affection and repeated death scenes.

“I killed them,” Driver’s Henry sings of his crowd after a stand-up gig, before how Ann’s opera went.

“I saved them,” she replies.

Henry and Ann love each other so much, as the song We Love Each Other So Much, during which the duo repeat the title of the song again and again, reminds us throughout the movie. But all is not right in their relationship, and trouble begins to brew shortly after the birth of their daughter.

That daughter is the titular Annette, and she’s the real star of the show: Annette is portrayed by a marionette puppet through various ages from infancy during the film, and the detailed puppet work in the film is astonishing. The craftsmanship that has gone into the design of the Annette marionettes, and her delicate performance through subtle movement, create a real-feeling character that could not be portrayed any other way.

What exactly goes wrong between Henry and Ann is largely left to our imagination, but audience rejection of Henry parallels real-world events. A dream sequence that may or may relate to actual events in the film features a group of six women coming forward with assault allegations against Henry, all through song.

Almost all the dialogue in Annette is sung, from lyrics written by Ron & Russell Mael of the pop duo Sparks, who are also credited with the film’s screenplay. Sparks has built up a cult following (especially in Europe) over the past fifty years, and has suddenly received mainstream (ish) exposure this summer through a new Edgar Wright documentary and now the Cannes opener Annette.

They deserve it: not previously in on the Sparks phenomenon, I was blown away by their evocative and richly atmospheric soundtrack to Annette, which mixes in pop musical sensibilities with a wide range of modern film music styles that range from Philip Glass to Hans Zimmer. Their lyrics, meanwhile, can get a little cloyingly repetitive.

Annette’s visual presentation by director Carax and cinematographer Caroline Champetier, who also shot Holy Motors, is breathtaking: inky blacks and dull neon lights create a matted, muddied version of L.A. that also makes wonderful use of some of the city’s landmarks not usually seen in Hollywood productions. Like Nicolas Winding Refn in Drive, Carax presents a richer and more evocative vision of Los Angeles than most hometown filmmakers.

While other characters, including at least one member of Sparks and director Carax himself, make appearances throughout the film, Annette is largely a three-character piece, with Driver, Cotillard, and an accompanist played by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, who is something of a revelation here.

But Annette belongs to Driver (who also produced the film), and his caustic, car crash of a portrayal of Henry is something we can’t help but gawk at. We hate this character more and more throughout the movie, but strangely, and thanks to Driver’s intense and moving performance, we also identify with him.

A final sequence between Driver and young actress Devyn McDowell, who can’t be more than five or six here, highlights the movie and ends Annette on a pitch-perfect note. McDowell has just one scene in the film, but it’s a showstopper as she sings alongside Driver and matches his intensity beat for beat; it’s one of the best performances by a child actor you’ll see, and aided by the puppetry work that has gone into the film up to that point.

Annette will not appeal to all audiences, as already seen by a somewhat chilly reception at Cannes on opening night. But this latest film from Carax might be his best: strange and indulgent but also enchanting, this is something different that deserves to be celebrated.



Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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