Ann (Marion Cotillard) and Henry (Adam Driver) are an odd but glamourous couple – she, a world-famous, beautiful, apple-eating opera singer, he a successful, provocative, banana-loving stand-up comedian. And yet they’re in love. The public eats up their love story, consuming the pretty pictures they see in the media.
Annette will not be for everyone, and for once that’s not me being a snob condescending to you normies who surely won’t appreciate creative cinema when you see it (though god knows I’m alarmingly comfortable being that bitch); it’s me, a snob and seasoned consumer of movies, telling you that even I found it weird and difficult to digest. First of all, it’s a musical. It’s a musical that’s not stylized as a musical. It’s a tediously descriptive musical. The song that opens the film is called So May We Start, and those are more or less all of the lyrics as well, asking in a prolonged and pedestrian way if they should start the film. I didn’t turn it off, so I guess that passed for consent, so we see them become their characters, Driver donning a long, curly wig, and ten minutes into the film, it begins. If not immediately won over, I was at least intrigued enough to keep this party going. But all subsequent songs – and there are many, they are constant – are equally plainly descriptive. Their love song: “We Love Each Other So Much.” Simon Helberg’s song about being Ann’s accompanist: “I’m an Accompanist.” Henry’s song about fatherhood skills: “I’m A Good Father.” Not a metaphor for miles. And yet, when Henry performs his comedy, there isn’t a single joke. There are only songs about the usual contents of a stand-up routine. And when Ann’s on stage at the opera, her song is about the most common components of the opera: death, and bows. The songs stand in for actual entertaining content. Are the songs themselves supposed to be entertaining? It’s hard to say for sure but it’s even harder to believe that yes, they are. Because truly, they aren’t. And I normally love a musical, even a half-baked one, and I’ve always enjoyed using 5000 words when 5 would do. But these songs, conceived by the band Sparks, are just not for me. Too avant-garde? Not avant-garde enough?
But this isn’t even the weird, or weirdest, part of the movie. Henry’s embroiled in a scandal and the couple grow apart as her star continues to rise as his career stalls and then fails. Even their newborn baby isn’t uniting them, cute as little Annette is. And by cute I mean she’s not cute at all. She’s very, very creepy. That’s a mean thing to say about a baby; good thing she’s actually a puppet. I’ve misused the word ‘actually’ in that sentence, though I do not mean to deceive you. Mostly I’m confused myself. Visually, verifiably, clearly, Annette is ‘played’ by a creepy rubber puppet who moves like a stiff rubber puppet, with unblinking glass eyes and obvious ligatures to keep her joints relatively articulated. My god is she creepy. Not quite as creepy as the wispy mustache that Henry grows, but still quite remarkably creepy. But wait – there’s more! The film never comments on the fact that Annette appears to you and I to be a puppet – they simply treat her like a real baby, as if this movie is a middle school Christmas pageant with no budget and no recently birthed siblings to play the baby Jesus. Annette’s mom and dad simply see their beautiful baby girl. However, baby Annette does have something strange about her, a gift the film lauds as unusual and extraordinary, but which doesn’t seem all that weird compared to the weirdness of the film itself. It’s like an elephant holding a press conference to tell us that a 7 year old boy is reading at a 6th grade level. That’s quite remarkable, sure, and good for the kid, but are we really just glossing over the fact that an elephant learned both English, AND the power of the media? The medium IS the message, people.
Do not let me dissuade you from watching Annette. After a debut at Cannes and a tiny theatrical run, it is now streaming on Amazon Prime, a fairly innocuous way to sample a truly original film, and while you may or may not respond to it, at least it’s not another Hollywood retread. It’s daring and risky (it pairs a pedo mustache with a douchebag fedora!) and a fun game is to keep your face neutral and simply record the spot in the film where your spouse finally buckles and says “That’s weird.” For Sean it didn’t come until 1h24m into the film, at a point so random and arbitrary that I was astounded and amused in equal portions. I wish my reaction to the film was just as balanced, but still, I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s moving end. It perhaps wasn’t totally earned, but it was a few very stirring minutes of film at the end of a 2h21m movie.