One of the big films to come out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Annette, the English language debut from French director Leos Carax. Following the relationship between controversial stand-up comedian, Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and famous soprano, Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), Annette is an epic in terms of the various themes it explores as well as the cinematic scope. Running at a staggering 140 minutes, Annette features music written by Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks who cowrote the script alongside Carax and the result is a mind-blowingly wonderful experience that is unlike any film you have ever seen.
Annette sees Carax return to film after 2012’s Holy Motors and is his first English language film. What is fantastic about Carax’s approach to the film is how ironic and aware it is from the opening number all the way to the end. We are informed that we are watching a performance through the medium of performance and it is this layering of dark comedy and contrast that saw Carax win the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. On the surface, Annette may seem like a lot in terms of its various genres and themes but Carax handles it with ease and allows the film to develop organically. The script by Carax and Sparks takes us through a variety of different themes with some taking more prominence than others. Arguably, the most important theme observed in the film is celebrity, how distorting fame can be and how a public persona can overwhelm a person’s psyche to the point where reality and fantasy collide. Just in the way Annette plays with different themes, it is Carax’s way of merging musical, drama, romance and dark comedy that makes it exciting and unpredictable to watch.
Adam Driver delivers a career-best performance as Henry McHenry. From the first set that we see, McHenry never allows the audience in to what he is thinking and what his motives are. Driver’s performance is extremely visceral and layered as he fully encompasses McHenry on a physical and emotional level. Immediately grabbing the audience’s attention, McHenry lives for controversy and aspires to have his name in lights while simultaneously denouncing fame in his act. As Ann’s star rises and his wains, we begin to see McHenry’s public persona and his real personality begin to clash as he struggles to regain control of his public life which then filters into his personal life.
Playing Ann Defrasnoux is Oscar winner Marion Cotillard who is breathtaking as the soprano on the rise. Compared to McHenry’s unpredictable and controversial comedian who improvises his set, Defrasnoux is poised and controlled which is shown through her repeated performances that are lauded among critics and the public. Ann is more reserved than Henry and this seems to go in her favour as Henry begins to implode in his career while her career goes from strength to strength. Cotillard brings her best performance in years and again showing what makes her one of the great living actresses. Her turn as Ann is one filled with sorrow and hope simultaneously as she strives to do what is best for Annette and her relationship with Henry but as it begins to fall apart, she realises that there isn’t much that she can do.
Simon Helberg provides a fantastic supporting turn as The Accompanist, Ann’s pianist and aspiring conductor. Helberg is in it briefly throughout the first half but really comes into the film’s main plot in the second half where he is able to bring a beautifully nuanced performance that is full of bittersweet melancholy. His love and affection for Annette is clear as he reluctantly agrees to take care of her while Henry spends all of the money on his party lifestyle. Helberg may not be in a lot of the film’s 140 minute running time but he makes the most of it.
As Annette is a musical then it is important to discuss the music and songs. Written by Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks, the music is a key component in the film in many different ways rather than simply telling the story through song. We learn more about the characters through their style of music and how they sing with the main contrast being Henry’s aggressive rock-fuelled anthems that incorporate his audience and Ann’s operatic performances in which she is observed by the audience as she sings by herself. In a way, the music serves to tell us more about the protagonists and acts as a way to foreshadow in both a literal and figurative sense.
Overall, Annette is a unique film that truly subverts every misconception that comes with the musical genre. As musicals are seeing a resurgence in recent years and many stage shows are being brought to the silver screen, Annette is a shining example of the musical’s place in modern cinema thanks to its originality and complexity. Musicals are often viewed as an accessible art form but it’s the film’s reluctance to let the audience in that makes it such a uniquely challenging and rewarding film to watch. Thoroughly deserving of the praise it is receiving, Annette may not be an easy film to digest but it gives the audience plenty to think about and discuss once the credits have finished rolling and that is the sign of truly great cinema.
What did you think of Annette? Let me know in the comments below!
Annette is available to watch in cinemas now!