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Film Review: ‘Annette’ is an Admirably Big Swing That Dares You to Enjoy It

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Musicals are often a joyous experience. Seeing characters brought to song by emotion is inherently moving, so the genre can do a lot of heavy lifting just by its nature. When it comes to rock operas, that can still be the case, fueled by passion in some way. Then, there’s Annette, which goes in the other direction. A deeply unpleasant experience, this independent musical takes the rock opera motif and goes completely off the rails. Now, that can easily make for a memorable experience, but is it a good one? Well, Annette is a film that tries your patience. For some, it’ll be worth the substantial time investment. For others, the movie will be a swing and a miss. For yours truly, this big swing is in fact a miss, but it’s one that’s hard to stop thinking about.

Annette is an indie rock opera that almost intentionally makes it difficult for you to like it. Intended by Sparks initially as a concept album, it does seem like it’s already an adaptation of something. Alas, something is lost in translation, as instead of bringing out emotion, it tests you. The lead performance and individual moments captivate, but the final product on the whole is a movie that lets you down.

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Plot is mostly an afterthought in this film, but that shouldn’t be a surprise, considering the filmmaker. Here we go, regardless. An opening sequence introduces the characters and establishes that this will largely be sung. Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) is a brash stand up comedian, performing acts that show disdain for his audience. Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard) is an opera singer adored the world over. Their courtship and marriage is tabloid fare, fascinating the masses. Soon, the couple is pregnant.

When Ann and Henry have a child, the result is Annette, depicted as a marionette. Moreover, Annette has a beautiful singing voice. That discovery, along with a life-altering moment for the couple, changes everything. Before, Henry worried that Ann was more beloved than he, while she worried that his aggressive act was a front for a potentially dark past. As things evolve, Annette’s well-being, mainly thought of by The Conductor (Simon Helberg), a former flame of Ann’s, is lost in the shuffle.

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Adam Driver is extremely good here, which makes how wasted Marion Cotillard is all the more distressing. Driver is the focus, and does dive head-first into the role. Cotillard recedes into the background and is just far more the underwritten character. Simon Helberg has a small role, but does make the most of it. The three just don’t have the big moments you’re hoping for. Truthfully, that sums up Annette pretty well.

Director Leos Carax deserves credit for even attempting this. Taking on the script by brothers Ron Mael and Russell Mael (the Sparks Brothers) is bold in and of itself. Unfortunately, the screenplay never invests you in the characters. We hear how much the couple loves each other, but it’s never depicted. Plus, for a musical, the songs are almost all dull and unmemorable. Cinematographer Caroline Champetier captures some interesting visuals, but Carax was a poor fit for the material. Sequences, especially the stand-up ones, go on forever, while none of the musical ones grab you. Too often, you find yourself admiring the chutzpah here while not actually enjoying what’s on the screen.

Abandon almost all Oscar hopes, ye who enter Annette. This is far closer to Holy Motors than something like La La Land. The first word out of the Cannes Film Festival confirmed that, and I’m here to say, even a Best Original Song nomination is going to be hard. “So May We Start” is their highlight tune, but it just doesn’t feel like voters will take to it. The movie is just such a far cry from what the Academy goes for. Perhaps I’m wrong, and we shall see, but more than likely, I’m not.

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Annette is, again, a very big swing. For me, it’s a bit too much of a swing and a miss, but your mileage may vary. To be sure, I’d much rather this sort of a misfire than so many other flicks that are just shooting for average and fail there. This is ambitious and wild, so if it’s also a little dull and pretentious, it’s still unique. Whether it’s worth your time or not, just know that it’s different, in every sense of the word.

SCORE: ★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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