Writer-director Leos Carax’s audacious rock opera “Annette” was the opening night selection at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, its gala premiere prompting boos, walkouts and a standing ovation that went on for so long the film’s star Adam Driver had time to smoke a cigarette while everyone was applauding. (Driver hails from San Diego but I believe this makes him an honorary Frenchman now.) Eight years in development, this angsty, unclassifiable musical whatzit features an international cast performing songs by American pop art duo Sparks and is, by turns, an ecstatic and intensely alienating experience. A passionately overheated melodrama about creativity and cruelty, when it was over I wasn’t sure what I’d just watched, but I knew I wanted to see it again as soon as possible. “Annette” might not be a movie for everybody, but setting $15 million on fire for such a singular, crackpot vision strikes me as a far more productive waste of Amazon’s money than sending a divorced billionaire to space.
Driver stars as standup comedian Henry McHenry, who bills himself as “The Ape of God” and performs in a prizefighter’s robe and trunks, with a bevy of Black backup singers. Excruciatingly unfunny, he paces and prowls the stage like Tom Cruise in “Magnolia” doing Andrew Dice Clay’s “The Day the Laughter Died” material, contemptuously insulting the audience for being there — and of course they eat it up. Henry’s madly, crazy in love with Marion Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux, a superstar soprano with a heart as light as his is dark. She speaks sincerely of a singer’s aspiration to uplift and “save” her fans, while after a good show he says he “slayed” or “killed ‘em.” Their unlikely affair is the talk of tabloid television, with the film occasionally interrupted by gossipy news breaks offering updates about the state of their relationship: It’s not good.
Henry hates himself so much he can’t understand why a soul as pure as Ann could ever care for such a lowlife, and despite the schmaltzy refrain of their perhaps intentionally overplayed duet “We Love Each Other So Much,” it’s easy to see the cracks and fissures in this fairy tale romance. (Driver’s stage getup is an obvious homage to “Raging Bull,” but the film reminded me more of “New York, New York,” the extravagant “wife-beating musical” about mismatched creatives that almost sank Scorsese’s career.) It hardly helps that she’s dying onstage every night — as star sopranos always do in the opera — feeding lurid fantasies into Henry’s harried head, which he twists and contorts into bad taste material for his stage show, spectacularly immolating his career amid a literal chorus of #MeToo accusers. When tragedy strikes it’s, of course, inevitable. “Annette” is an opera, after all.
A former enfant terrible who just turned 60 years old, Carax has blown up his own career on multiple occasions but shows no signs of mellowing with age. His wild, inscrutable movies like “Mauvais Sang” and “Holy Motors” are so deeply personal they can sometimes seem made for an audience of one. So there’s a fascinating creative tension to his collaboration with Sparks. Songwriting brothers Ron and Russell Mael have specialized in wry detachment since the 1970s, so dapper and twee everyone assumes they’re English even though they’re from California. (The band was profiled earlier this year in director Edgar Wright’s interminable documentary “The Sparks Brothers,” a film so conflict-free and fawning it felt like a 140-minute episode of “The Chris Farley Show.”) But Carax doesn’t do wry detachment.
Sparks’ syncopations and their clipped precision run interestingly at odds with the director’s full-throated, messy melodrama. That tension comes to the fore as early as the fantastic opening number, “So May We Start,” in which the band members put down their instruments and exit a recording studio, striding purposefully through the city streets, collecting cast members along the way. The incantatory chorus asking “may we?” is answered by the French mais oui, before everybody rushes to take their places so the movie can begin. In staging and composition, it’s strikingly similar to the rousing accordion “entr’acte” that served as a halftime show in “Holy Motors,” but with a backbeat more sinister and foreboding.
“Annette” gets a lot of nervous laughs from characters singing their way through situations that don’t exactly lend themselves to musical theater. Cotillard purrs a beautiful ballad on the toilet, and in what’s already become the movie’s most notorious scene, Driver manages to keep up his end of a duet while performing cunnilingus. Yet, such formal tomfoolery never snaps the movie’s emotional spell, with not even the, shall we say, unconventional appearance of the couple’s daughter — a character kept hidden from the film’s publicity materials for good reason — interrupting the roiling intensity and emotional ardor. Carax 100% commits to the artifice, leaning into the plasticky digital video textures and tacky rear-screen projection to create a slick, phony-looking world where genuine feelings throb like sore thumbs.
It’s all unthinkable without Driver, playing a younger, handsomer variation on Carax’s regular big-screen alter-ego Denis Levant with his usual full-bore physicality. There’s no better fulminator in the movies right now. Driver makes sputtering frustration into an art form, trying on as many different shades of resentment as he does wild wigs, while “Annette” skims across the years from madness into sad resignation. Mais oui, indeed.