Annette bugs the hell out of me because, on paper, it’s a film I should love. It’s directed by French arthouse provocateur, and cinéma du look proponent Leos Carax, whose work I usually adore (2012’s Holy Motors, his last feature, is, as the kids don’t say, a trip). The script and the music come from cult musicians Ron Mael and Russell Mael, aka Sparks, who are having a bit of A Moment thanks to the recent documentary on their joint career by director Edgar Wright, Shaun of the Dead (2004), et al. The cast includes Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, who rock very hard under normal circumstances. Simon Helberg, who will carry the stink of The Big Bang Theory (2007 – 19) with him for the rest of his life (I don’t hate it, but it seems everyone else I know does and with a fierceness), crops up in a supporting role and is very, very good.
But I don’t dig it. I don’t hate it either. I nothing it; I’ll have trouble remembering it before too long if I don’t watch it again, and there’s not much likely to make me want to do that. It’s a middling movie: midbrow, midrange, probably mid a lot of Year’s Best and Year’s Worst lists come December.
The plot is … well, derived from a narrative Sparks engineered for a concept album, which means a lot of the usual rules for cinematic storytelling are out the window, which is fine by me (and definitely fine by Carax — you saw Holy Motors, yeah?). Driver is stand-up comedian Henry McHenry, a performer kind of in the Bill Hicks provocateur mode, who romances opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard, naturally). They marry, she has a baby, Annette, largely realized via the use of a child-size mannequin. Her career is an upswing, his is spiraling, because he hates looking after that damn puppet kid, and he’s starting to have onstage meltdowns. They take a cruise to try and patch things up, she falls overboard and drowns — it’s his fault. Annette, out of the blue, starts singing with her mother’s voice.
This is all first act stuff. It takes forever. At least, it seems to.
His career on the rocks, Henry decides to start managing Annette’s, roping in her old accompanist (Simon Helberg) to join her onstage. The accompanist is an empathetic fellow who thinks Henry is working Annette too hard. Henry does not give a damn — that puppet metaphor is a bit on the nose, really. And you can probably see where this is going.
For a surreal, allegorical tale of fame, arrogance, and parental abuse of power, Annette rarely shocks or dazzles. It’s never completely boring, but it never makes you sit up and take notice, apart from one scene right at the end, which, really, it would be obnoxious to spoil, but is a nice cherry on a pretty average sundae. The best way to describe the whole exercise is “underwhelming.” The reputation of the creatives involved promises so much and yet delivers almost nothing.
But the worst thing? The worst thing?
I can’t remember a single bloody song. That’s surely a death knell for a musical. Skip it.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Travis Johnson