From: Silver Screen
REVIEW: ‘Annette’ shines light on familial dysfunction set against an operatic landscape of color and sound
“Annette” might be the most ambitious movie of 2021. Leos Carax’s genre-morphing musical is technically executed to near perfection. But is his flamboyant style just a front for a film lacking in thematic depth?
The 2021 Cannes Film Festival opener details the tumultuous relationship of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard). Henry is a stand-up comedian and provocateur who grows increasingly envious of Ann. Her career as an opera singer is flourishing, while his popularity dwindles. The arrival of their unique baby daughter, Annette (Devyn McDowell), complicates things further as the struggles of parenthood put even more strain on their already fragile relationship. From here, the film tracks the hectic course of the family’s existence as they deal with jealousy, hostility, exploitation and life in the limelight.
“Annette” fluctuates in quality and tone throughout its entirety, but if there’s one constant, it’s Driver’s performance. His raw charisma is the film’s main propellent for the whole way through. In one particularly memorable scene, Henry is performing as his stage persona, a bizarro world Bo Burnham-esque character named “the Ape of God;” he seems to go through great anguish as he details the way in which he has tickled his wife to death.
There’s an exuberant absurdity to his delivery that Driver has displayed before in his “Saturday Night Live” appearances, but here he proves that he can bring the same emotional effect to his dramatic roles. Henry’s more subdued moments pack an equally powerful punch. His intimidating stature and steely-eyed gaze make many scenes feel like they’re out of a horror film with Driver as the unfeeling monster.
Cotillard excels in her role as well. Her singing abilities are never in doubt as she puts on performances with staggering vocal range. Simon Helberg turns in another solid performance as The Conductor, Ann’s ex-lover and piano accompanist turned orchestral maestro. While Cotillard and Helberg are both commendable, their characters are hardly given enough time in the spotlight. They feel underdeveloped as they play second-fiddle to Henry, the film’s only character with a true arc.
Along with Driver’s performance, Carax’s direction is one of the most entertaining aspects of “Annette.” The first act in particular uses bold colors and interesting visuals to grab our attention right out of the gate. Carax’s filmography is full of references to the supernatural, and his latest film is no exception. Physical manifestations of the demons Henry fails to outrun from his past are shown in the forms of phantom-like visions. Blurring the line between reality and the paranormal lends an interesting energy to a movie that tends to drag as it goes along.
One of the less successful features of “Annette’s” direction is the jarring shifts in tone that frequently occur. Dramatic sequences are regularly interrupted by light-hearted musical numbers, cutting tension before it ever has the chance to build. The first few times that such interruptions occur, it's admittedly unexpected. But around the halfway mark, I found myself disengaged from developing scenes because I worried that they would never amount to anything substantial.
Sadly, I was usually right. Dispositional changes in the middle of a scene are a hard feat to pull off in cinema. Bong Joon Ho has found great success in this form of undulatory storytelling in films such as “Memories of Murder” and “Parasite.” He keeps the audience on their toes, seamlessly crossing boundaries of genre and mood. Whereas Bong feels like a skilled composer, knowing how and when to build and cut tension, Carax’s sudden mood swings feel out of control.
The musical aspects’ success in “Annette” wavers as frequently as the rest of its elements. The sound design provides a unique auditory feast on par with films like “Sound of Metal” and “Whiplash.” However, the soundtrack’s success is a bit more varied. Toe-tapping numbers like the opener “So May We Start” bring a cheerful bit of life to a movie that can feel overbearingly dark at times. Other songs, like “Aria (The Forest)” and “Let’s Waltz in the Storm!,” are so entrenched in theatricality that they fail to move the story along. There are many moments where “Annette’s” success as an audio-visual experience outweighs its narrative merit, which isn’t exactly what I’m looking for when I go to a movie theater.
“Annette” comes off as an impressive mess of a film that’s sure to leave moviegoers simultaneously wowed and underwhelmed. The chasm dividing its successes and failures creates an unbridgeable distance between the two. Carrax thrives on subverting his audience’s expectations, but in the end it's hard to tell whether or not he’s just as confused as we are.