Opera? Oops!: Mystifying musical ‘Annette’ stumbles over its own ambitions

A few comments on Annette, the exasperating new pop opera by French filmmaker Leos Carax: 

As imagined by Director Carax and American rock band Sparks—a.k.a. Ron and Russell Mael—Annette opens on a recording session that morphs into a street procession with its pair of lovers—performance artist Henry (Adam Driver) and chanteuse Ann (Marion Cotillard)—leading the way. The effect is immediate and unsettling. The tunes compare unfavorably to any routine Broadway stage musical. They’re more of a half-baked oratorio.

The story picks up the dirge-like musical thread as we observe the characters. Henry’s big-theater show is weak beyond belief. After coming on stage in a boxer’s bathrobe, his monologue has the unpleasant aroma of an unfortunate out-of-town tryout, or a self-indulgent high-school acting exercise. Henry doesn’t tell jokes, he rants, and the crowd’s laughter seems forced. Meanwhile, in crosscutting, Ann’s leaden songs tell us nothing. “I killed them, murdered them,” murmurs Henry afterwards. “I saved them,” Ann automatically replies. Driver and Cotillard sing all the dialogue in their own voices, but the melodies are forgettable and the lyrics repetitive, as if trying to drive home an obscure point about the two dissatisfied lovers.

We begin to wonder just what these people are trying to tell us. Annette originated as Sparks’ planned next album in 2013, and attracted the interest of Carax, the enigmatic auteur of Bad Blood (1986), Pola X (1999) and Holy Motors (2012), a trifecta of self-conscious hipster excursions down dirty streets in search of love. His most notorious project, the ambitious 1991 romance The Lovers on the Bridge, featured Juliette Binoche and frequent Carax cast member Denis Lavant waterskiing up the Seine in Paris, as re-created for the film. Carax’s constant theme is the difficulty of maintaining a romantic relationship in the uncaring modern world—a cliché on which he has spent millions, and which has yielded mostly ennui.

In the composers/performers the Mael brothers, Carax seems to have found his musical doppelgänger. They epitomize the under-appreciated cult band with lofty intentions and hard-to-decipher concepts. The music of Annette is a case in point. From Henry and Ann’s awful duet while walking in the countryside to their mock-rapturous home life with big-eared baby daughter Annette—an animatronic creation—the monotonous “operatic” portion of this 140-minute-long pic lets all the remaining air out of an already weak scenario. We end up feeling sorry for Driver and Cotillard, whose nervous antics actually make us miss Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s awkward “chemistry” in La La Land.

Assuming an “avant-garde” stance presumes the artists possess the talent and inspiration to present the material “straight” in the first place. Such is not the case here. Anyone trying to take the laughably “tragic” story of Henry, Ann and little Annette seriously would be defeated by it. The Maels are allegedly famous for their self-deprecating irony; Carax is likewise noted for his overwrought tales of twisted passion. In a rather sad way they deserve each other. It’s embarrassing to watch Annette flip and flounder in its melodramatic syrup.

This is not to say that the movie is completely without redeeming facets. Caroline Champetier’s cinematography and the production design by Florian Sanson are first-class, particularly in the metaphorical “storm at sea” set piece in the film’s second half. The lead actors suffer from the non-sequitur lines they’re forced to repeat. Driver may be in danger of overexposure at this point in his career, but his physicality makes up in part for clumsy situations. This particular outing will roll off his back like water off a duck. Cotillard’s work, however, has generally been more meaningful, so we’re left wondering if perhaps she were kidnapped and forced to take this role. To sum up Annette: Long and drawn out. Skimpy plot. Irritatingly pretentious. Poverty of language. Completely humorless. Opaque, dismal melodies.

In theaters Aug. 6, streaming on Amazon Prime Aug. 20.
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