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Strange, Singular, Audacious 'Annette' Works As An Odd, Original Rock Opera

Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play an anguished celebrity couple in <em>Annette</em>.
Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard play an anguished celebrity couple in <em>Annette</em>.

2021 is shaping up to be a significant year for movie musicals: We've already seen In the Heights, and several more stage-to-screen adaptations are headed our way, including Dear Evan Hansen; Tick, Tick ... Boom!; and Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story.

While I'm looking forward to them, I doubt any of them will be as strange and singular as Annette, an original musical in every sense. It's an extravagantly emotional rock opera that mixes comedy and tragedy, showbiz satire and doomed romance. It doesn't all work; if you're not on its bizarre wavelength, it may not work for you at all. But moment by moment, its go-for-broke audacity left me feeling grateful that it exists.

Annette was directed by Leos Carax, the French visionary best known for his unhinged 2012 masterpiece, Holy Motors. The script and songs were written by Ron and Russell Mael, the musical brothers whose band, Sparks, has enjoyed a cultish following since the '60s. The director and writers appear on-screen at the beginning of Annette, in a playful number called "So May We Start," that also introduces the main actors. It kicks things off on a joyous high note that quickly fades as the film begins spinning a tale of rage, obsession and jealousy.

At the heart of the movie is Adam Driver's mesmerizingly anguished performance as Henry, a cynical L.A. standup comedian who rips into himself and his audience every night during a rambling, not-particularly-funny routine. Henry has recently started seeing Ann, a beloved opera soprano played by a luminous Marion Cotillard.

They're a counterintuitive pairing, the bad-boy comedian and the soulful tragedian; one gossipy headline dubs them "Beauty and the Bastard." But there's real passion in their whirlwind romance, as we see and hear in the song, "We Love Each Other So Much," which Henry and Ann sing to each other, in part, while in the throes of sexual ecstasy. And why not? Aren't musical numbers meant to express heightened emotional states?

Carax and his collaborators clearly delight in taking the conventions of the form and pushing them to weird, hilarious extremes. Most of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken, and the actors are up to the challenge: Cotillard has long been a singer as well as an actor, and Driver tosses off some of his lyrics with a Sondheim-esque virtuosity that might remind you of his heartfelt rendition of "Being Alive" from Marriage Story.

Speaking of marriage stories: Henry and Ann soon tie the knot, and almost immediately things begin falling apart. Henry's comedy career hits the skids, in part because he can't stop ranting to his audience about his jealousy over his wife's success. Their private troubles play out in a very public spotlight, in a way that recalls classic Hollywood romances like A Star Is Born. There's no saving Henry and Ann's marriage, not even after they have a baby girl, the Annette of the title. In the movie's most whimsical touch, baby Annette is played by a small wooden puppet — a choice that makes no sense and perfect sense: What better device than a puppet to suggest that for a celebrity couple, all the world's a stage?

Annette is full of such surreal flights of fancy, but it also has some heavy things to say about the price of fame. That's an intriguing subject for Carax, who's had his own barbed relationship with success in France, and for Ron and Russell Mael, who are often hailed as the most famous musicians you've never heard of, as seen in their terrific recent documentary The Sparks Brothers.

Annette paints a grim picture of contemporary stardom, with a passing nod to the #MeToo movement: In one hallucinatory number, Ann imagines that six women have accused Henry of abuse. It's just a dream, but it's a hard one to shake, given Henry's temper and the menacing way that Driver dwarfs Cotillard in the frame.

I wish there were more of Cotillard in Annette; as great as Driver is, his rage is so charismatic, so all-consuming, that it leaves the story feeling emotionally lopsided. It also reinforces the gender power imbalance that the movie attempts to critique. But Henry is held somewhat in check by two other key characters. One of them is a music conductor, played by a fine Simon Helberg, who tries to protect Ann and Annette from Henry's destructive impulses. The other is little Annette herself, whose innocence becomes quietly heroic as the movie approaches its shattering finale. This sweet, sad-eyed puppet reminds you of how so many great musicals work: by taking an artificial conceit and making it seem as real as life.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.