“Annette” tries to throw the audience off from the outset. Over a blank screen, a voice tells the audience that noise of any kind, including breathing, will not be tolerated during the film. This transitions right into the opening number, asking the audience for permission to start the film while introducing the main characters. It’s an opening that will either have you immediately hooked or rolling your eyes and looking for the exits.
The film is not afraid to take bold risks, and once it has you in its grasp, it refuses to let go.
“Annette” follows the marriage of comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver, “Marriage Story”) and opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard, “Inception”). These professions perfectly convey the film’s tone with the combination of the sadistic, dark comedy of a shock comedian and the big, emotional melodrama of an opera singer. The couple has a child named Annette, portrayed by a wooden puppet, the center of tension between Henry and Ann. By making Annette a puppet, the filmmakers avoid gambling on the performance of a child actor, while enhancing the themes of Henry’s control in all domains of life.
Director Leos Carax (“Holy Motors”) bombards the audience with unexpected twists, yet almost none of them would work without the completely committed central performances of Driver and Cotillard. It doesn’t matter what kind of ridiculous nonsense Carax asks them to do in a given scene; both actors are fully on board and give everything they have to get earn the emotional investment of viewers.
Driver delivers one of the best performances of his already illustrious career as he compels you to be on the side of a truly despicable man. The physicality of his performance, aided by his tall frame and full use of his remarkable skill as an actor, captivates the audience. During the scenes where Henry is performing stand-up, Driver expertly navigates the conflict with both the crowds at his shows and himself, and he perfectly portrays the character losing his mind.
As expected from a film that swings for the fences almost every second of its 141-minute runtime, some choices strike out. The songs are surprisingly weak for a musical, and while they work fine within the context of the film, they aren’t going to be stuck in your head for weeks after hearing them.
The film also drags on a bit in the second half. A new plot development at the midpoint means it takes time to ramp up a new conflict, killing the film’s existing momentum. Once the new tension between Henry and his daughter is developed, “Annette” once again becomes entirely engrossing, but the tedium may lose viewers who weren’t totally sold by the film from the start.
“Annette” has been a polarizing film since it opened the Cannes Film Festival back in July, which isn’t unexpected given the outlandish choices the film makes. However, these are exactly the kinds of films that make the medium so wonderful. It’s a film that doesn’t play it safe and isn’t concerned about crashing and burning. It’s a film that, if enough people were to see it, should spark fascinating discussions for months, if not years.
Not all of it works, but “Annette” is one of the best films of the year so far precisely because not all of it works. It makes for a far more interesting and invigorating experience than something that aims lower and succeeds.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.