Annette was the opening night film at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival where it received a reception so bathed in adoration that co-star Adam Driver lit up a cigarette simply waiting on the crowd's applause to subside.
Of course, we all know that Cannes can be a peculiar place and what is adored amongst the elite may be soundly rejected by the masses.
That would be a pity because, quite simply, Leos Carax's Annette is unquestionably one of the best films of the year and it most certainly confirms, if it wasn't confirmed already, that Adam Driver is one of the boldest, most exciting, and most vulnerable actors working today.
I loved Annette.
I loved every moment of its 140-minutes of bold unpredictability and emotional rawness. I found perfection in its imperfections and I felt immersed in the words created by Russell and Ron Mael, seemingly forever known as the art-pop/rock duo Sparks whose resurgence this year has reminded us of their genius past and present.
Annette is most easily referred to as a musical, though I'd dare say it demands more than that single word. It is a musical for sure, or perhaps more accurately described as something resembling a pop/rock opera with a narrative rhythm that practically sways with the music. While Marion Cotillard feels at home here, the presence of Driver feels as absurd as when Adam Sandler popped up in a Paul Thomas Anderson flick.
Then, we watched it and it all made sense.
The same is true here.
Carax captured the Best Director Prize at Cannes for his work here. It was well deserved. It's almost overwhelming that Annette works and yet work it does. It's a masterpiece all wrapped up in an occasionally imperfect, sometimes befuddling motion picture.
I was exhausted by the time the closing credits were scrolling by. Yet, there I was desperately wanting to watch it all over again.
I should caution you, I suppose, that not all of you will feel the same.
I'd dare say that many will not. Annette is an unusual motion picture and it practically demands a moviegoing mind that can shapeshift itself into various contortions and cinematic dark corners.
Annette is occasionally campy but never in a B-movie sort of way. It vacillates between swish and swagger with vibrant fluidity. At times, I laughed. Other times, I was aghast at its audacity.
I loved every moment.
I loved Adam Driver as Henry, a self-hating kill or be killed stand-up comic whose stage-prep swagger is smoke and mirrors and more smoke. He's controversial and he embraces that controversy. He's a raging yet mumbling behemoth of some sort. He's really never more than mildly offensive.
Until he's more.
Henry is partnered with Marion Cotillard's Ann Defrasnoux, an artistic polar opposite as a rather genteel opera singer who spends her nights saving the audience that Henry would kill and kill again.
Henry kills for his art. Ann dies for it.
The downward spiral begins when Henry tries a controversial new bit that fails. It goes to far ... perhaps not far enough, but in a way he becomes canceled and that's a fate worse than death or worse than anything else for Henry. He's lost control of his stage life and, as such, he becomes consumed by controlling his real life.
It is when a child is born for Henry and Ann that Annette becomes so completely weird and wonderful. The daughter, Annette of course, is one that should be experienced rather than described in a review.
A review, not even my own, can simply not give Annette justice.
Suffice it to say that Annette is creepy in ways that feel jarring precisely because they feel so very real. While this film is called Annette, rest assured that this is Henry's film because Henry demands it. Driver is, I'll confess somewhat to my surprise even as a diehard fan of Driver's work, very much up to the task of portraying Henry in all his interior and exterior glory and chaotic mess. Driver uses his physicality masterfully and brings Henry to life in ways that transcend dialogue. It's an almost absurdist performance that feels guttural in its impact. Driver's genius comes somewhat at the cost of Cotillard's quieter and almost ghostly turn as Ann. Cotillard is here and she is wonderful, though there's little denying that by film's end it is Driver you will most remember because Henry refuses to be forgotten.
Young Devyn McDowell is here far more briefly than one might expect as the title character, though it's for reasons I won't be explaining here. Nevertheless, McDowell is memorable even as she holds her own against the psychological ravages of Driver's Henry.
One can practically see Carax doing a swan dive into the narrative that is Annette, a maximalism that Carax fully embraces and even dances with from time to time. Florian Samson's production design is lush, mood-setting, and wildly immersive. Caroline Champetier's lensing toys with us and taunts us and demands our attention throughout the film's 140-minute running time. Nelly Quettier's precise yet patient editing jumps and jolts and soothes and makes sure the film never loses its swagger.
Of course, there's the music from the Mael Brothers. "We Love Each Other So Much" is romantic and sexy and saccharine and cinematically perfect. "So May We Start" kicks things off like a playful kick in the head that leaves a bruise and makes you laugh. "True Love Always Finds a Way" will have you humming along. Simon Helberg is front-and-center on "I'm an Accompanist" and, indeed, Helberg is a sublime supporting player here.
There are other tunes here and all of the music comes to life in weird, wonderful, and decidedly honest ways. While Cotillard has played a singer before and can most certainly sing, it's Driver who may once again be the true surprise in ways imperfect yet seductive.
Oh, and yes, those Mael brothers will show up here in ingenious ways.
Annette is, at least seven months into 2021, easily one of my favorite films of the year. It's a film both universal yet stunning in its intimacy. Annette simultaneously feels epic yet also like a conversation on the porch. It's wild. It's audacious. It's weird. It's wonderful. It's real. It's an illusion. It's fame. It's gone.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic