‘Annette’ review: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard and a puppet makes three in this darkly strange movie musical

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A film guaranteed to destroy all memories of the musical “The Prom,” director Leos Carax’s “Annette” proved a sensation at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. This was for many reasons, one being a scene where Adam Driver’s character, a lacerating stand-up comic/performance artist, sings a lyric or two of a song while his head is between the legs of his opera star wife, played by Marion Cotillard.

With sternly catchy songs of love, contempt and regret by the Sparks duo of Ron and Russell Mael, “Annette” is very likely the cruelest movie musical since “Pennies From Heaven” back in 1981. It’s doggedly intent on putting you inside the mental cauldron of the Driver character, as he rails against his own fame, his perceived ugly duckling/fairy princess relationship with his wife; and the birth of their phenomenal daughter, who is played by wooden puppets of varying sizes.

That description may have already decided it for you — whether you’re in or out, that is. Well, it’s not that easy, really. Yes, the Frenchman Carax’s first film in English isn’t life-affirming so much as it is art-affirming. But it’s a weirdly compelling experience in blunt, arguably misogynist, harshly beautiful cinema.

The movie’s intentions are tipped off in the rather grand and pretty thrilling opening number, “So May We Start.” This will be a La La Land fable one planet over from “La La Land.” Driver is Henry, a sour, driven artist for whom success tastes like ashes in the mouth. (One of his sung confessionals is titled “Sympathy for the Abyss.”)

He wonders if he’s a changed man, at least, with the sexy highbrow diva Ann (Cotillard) in his life. But the way Carax has Ann perpetually within arm’s reach of a bright red apple — she’s both Eve and the snake, metaphorically — “Annette” casts its sleek pall early on.

Henry reacts to the birth of their daughter, and the burden of parental and marital responsibility, in ways that … well, that’s a spoiler, I suppose. It’s a blunt, even reductive narrative, essentially a contemporary chamber rock opera burrowing into a tortured psyche. For me the movie comes alive when Carax finds the rich intersections of film and theater, musicals and opera. The main characters (Simon Helberg of “The Big Bang Theory” is the third, playing Ann’s lovelorn accompanist) are all creatures of the stage and of live performance. They’re also wormy narcissists living out an unofficial, twisted remake of “A Star is Born.”

Carax’s vision of Los Angeles, and of America, will strike some as hypnotic and others as snide, fame-mongering, celebrity-driven and drawn to the lonely spaces outside LA proper (Henry’s only release, for a while, is to escape on his motorcycle, alone). Both responses are possible, too, of course. As for baby Annette? It’s no secret by now that the frankly theatrical realization of the golden child, who turns into a global superstar, takes “Annette” into full-on Bertolt Brecht alienation-effect territory. (Some of the songs carry an echo or two of Brecht and Kurt Weill.) We watch Henry circle the drain of his misdeeds, and we fall in with him, pushed by the soundtrack.

Carax’s “Holy Motors” also premiered at Cannes, nine years ago. That film flew on the wings of one amazing actor, Denis Lavant, playing an array of disparate outsiders. “Annette” works differently: Driver and Cotillard, both excellent though it’s Driver’s show all the way, are prisoners of their self-created images, locked in a hermetic universe that nonetheless feels alive and open to just about anything visually. Carax and cinematographer Caroline Champetier interpolate outlandishly artificial-looking rear-projection waves for a crucial storm sequence, and at one lovely point, Ann walks through some forest scenery during a performance as it morphs, magically, into a real forest.

In the end, what? Carax and Sparks may be seeking forgiveness, or at least understanding, regarding schmucky male behavior culminating in a substantial rap sheet. Or maybe they’re settling for proof that Adam Driver can commit to a single, driven character like few others in modern movies. This is hardly his first time singing on screen — he did it in “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Marriage Story” for starters. But here, he’s the unholy motor of a strange, singular film for singularly strange times.

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‘ANNETTE’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: R (for some sexual content including some nudity, and for language)

Running time: 2:20

Where to watch: In theaters Friday; streaming Aug. 20 on Amazon Prime Video.

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