French director Leos Carax is known for his IDGAF style of filmmaking. He doesn’t seem to be concerned about pleasing anyone but himself. This has led to some extraordinary films including his last release 2012’s “Holy Motors.” Almost a decade later he returns with his most polarizing work to date. I admire his vision as Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard sing new songs by legendary band Sparks, but as far as musicals go this isn’t “La La Land” unless you’re using that term in relation to falling asleep.
Adam Driver plays a successful comedian named Henry McHenry aka the Ape of God. He wears a robe backstage while punching the air as if he’s Rocky Balboa about to step into the ring, and while he may not be a boxer, Henry delivers verbal blows to the audience, berating them when he’s not complaining. We are supposed to believe he’s at the height of his success, but no one would pay to see this fiasco. The comedy isn’t funny, and Henry is obviously burned out.
Henry’s better half, opera singer Ann Defrasnoux, is played by Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, the best thing about “Annette,” but even she can’t save this tedious film. Cotillard delivers a convincing performance, her character is easier to swallow than Driver’s Henry. Also, Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”) delivers a good performance as Ann’s nameless loyal accompanist, known only as The Conductor.
The couple has a baby girl they name Annette who miraculously begins to sing opera when she’s not sleeping in her crib. Cha-ching, Henry looks at his daughter as a cash cow, and the little tyke is exploited as she becomes the world’s tiniest opera singer causing a frenzy wherever she performs. Carax chose to skip using a real baby, or a realistic CGI version, instead, giving Annette the appearance of a marionette, whose strings have been digitally erased. Suddenly I realized I had no problem with Bradley Cooper clutching a plastic doll baby in Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.”
Apart from a catchy opening number (“So May We Start”), the songs written for the film by pop duo Ron and Russell Mael known as Sparks, just fall flat. The tunes are nowhere near the caliber of the brothers’ melodic ditties they’ve unleashed over a 50-plus year career. Also, part of the problem is Driver’s discordant delivery. He’s a good actor but a miserable singer, although he gave it his all in “Marriage Story” while performing Steven Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” In “Annette” Driver half-sings as if he’s leading a Catholic mass, and take it from me, there is no carrying-a-tune prerequisite to becoming an ordained priest.
“Annette” is a pretentious film that fails on every level despite the involvement of all this amazing talent. There are a few impressive visuals plus Cotillard and Helberg’s solid performances, still, Driver, dressed in black, riding a Triumph motorcycle while sporting a black helmet, comes across as angry Kylo Ren in a “Star Wars” musical. Imagine him singing “You Can’t Hide, Rey. Not From Me.” And to be fair, Driver isn’t solely to blame for the film’s downfall, that responsibility lies with Carax.
Now showing in theaters. Available on Prime Video beginning August 20.