If you think you know musicals, think again. Annette, the first English language film from French auteur Leos Carax with songs from cult rock band Sparks, doesn’t have huge set-piece song and dance sequences, or singalong numbers. What it does have is singing sex scenes, a puppet baby, and an opening sequence in which Adam Driver grabs a straggly wig before riding off on a motorbike. La La Land this most certainly is not.
Driver, his hair somewhere between Tarzan and Charles II, is Henry McHenry, a comedian who thrives on outrage. He warms up for his shows like a boxer preparing to enter the ring and lopes on stage in a threadbare hooded dressing gown, part prize fighter, part recalcitrant teenage boy, makes vomiting sounds and mimes his own death by suicide then by sniper. Across town, his girlfriend Ann (Marion Cotillard) puts on a sheet mask, gearing up to act out her demise over and over again, albeit in more highbrow fashion. An opera singer with an other-worldly voice, she sells out concert halls playing tragic heroines. “Beauty and the bastard,” one mocked-up tabloid headline brands them.
What starts off as an odd couple romance then starts toying with ideas about toxic masculinity and the perils of fame (complete with all-singing, all-dancing paps) before shifting up a gear to melodrama, full of sturm and drang. Ann’s performances give us a frame of reference for Carax’s film, which makes most sense as an opera, filled as it is with larger-than-life passions and revenge.
Not long after Ann gives birth to a baby girl, the couple’s life together starts to take on the quality of nightmare - and not just because baby Annette, bless her, appears as a puppet with a shock of red hair, like a cuter Chucky. Ann’s thoughts are haunted by a Greek chorus of women delivering #MeToo-esque revelations about Henry’s violence and anger, and his career hits the skids (it turns out you can only dare your audience to cancel you so many times before they go ahead and do it) until he learns that baby Annette has an unearthly - and lucrative - talent.
It’s hard to imagine any other actor committing to this role quite so intensely as Driver, whose nervous energy is here deployed to unnerving effect. His “loathsome insect” of a character inevitably overshadows everyone he comes into contact with (and not just because he is six foot three - one memorable visual gag sees him lying next to Annette, his legs poking out of her cot) apart from Cotillard, who is magnetic in a part that’s less showy in dramatic terms but more challenging vocally.
Playing out across two hours and 20 minutes, it’s certainly not the first musical with a sprawling run time, but the songs aren’t quite propulsive enough to maintain the momentum. Sparks duo Ron and Russell Mael (who pop up in various cameos throughout, as does Carax) have created an atmospheric soundscape, especially in Ann’s haunting scenes, but not all their musical numbers live up to the promise of the clever opener So May We Start. Much of it is delivered in speak-singing rhyming couplets, which even actors of Driver and Cotillard’s calibre can’t always make compelling.
The dreamlike logic of Carax’s film means he’s free to indulge in all his weirder impulses (whether that’s a good or bad thing will probably depend on your tolerance for self-consciously alienating auteur cinema). From the scar that starts to engulf Driver’s face as his downfall plays out to a scene involving a tiny Annette being flown into a stadium on a drone, he layers oddity upon oddity. It’s more crowd puzzler than crowd pleaser: “a tale of songs and fury with no taboo,” as So May We Start puts it. You’re less likely to leave the cinema singing than wondering whether you’re the only one who hasn’t quite got it.