Shut up and sit.
When a “provocateur” such as comedian Henry McHenry’s (Adam Driver, who thanked Chris Rock and Bill Burr in the credits) crudely ambiguous “jokes” are as unfunny when he’s all the rage pre-marriage as the ones told after fatigue ravages his brain post-birth of his daughter, it’s tough to really dig into the reality of what’s happening on-screen. Was I supposed to find the initial stand-up gig at the beginning of Leos Carax‘s Annette (original story and songs by Sparks brothers Ron and Russell Mael) funny? I didn’t think so at the time both because it wasn’t and because the audience pretending it was actually did have me laughing. To pretend as though his career suffers despite staying on-brand was thus mind-boggling. Unless the point is mocking consumer fickleness.
Henry isn’t therefore funny. His fans, in the belief that they are cool for liking his act, delude him into thinking that he is. We can therefore pity him during the aftermath of his bombing in front of hecklers. He hasn’t done anything wrong. They’ve turned on him instead. Suddenly his schtick of making fun of his career, success, and love life (with the renowned opera soprano Ann Defrasnoux, as played by Marion Cotillard) isn’t cute because he’s a married father with newfound responsibilities. Suddenly, because he’s carrying around the titles of “husband” and “dad,” his humor has pivoted towards poor taste. And it happens overnight while Ann’s career skyrockets by comparison. She’s the career-woman wowing audiences and raising a child. She’s an inspiration despite her lover’s vulgarity.
Should we read Annette as an exposé on double-standards wherein we should feel sorry for a man emboldened and privileged by the patriarchy? I hope not. Is it a means for the Mael Brothers to comment on their wildly prolific career on the fringes of pop culture stardom and how they’ve had to reinvent their sound to find success at the detriment of losing those who wanted more of the same? Maybe. Or perhaps this farcical yet imaginative, clichéd yet ambitious movie musical is simply an eccentric curio written and directed by eccentric curios. It might even be all the above with an underlying glimpse at mankind’s penchant for exploiting talent for personal gains. Henry and Ann’s baby being a puppet isn’t random. That’s exactly what she is.
Baby Annette (in all her creepy, hinged limbed glory) is the Band-Aid this couple in the spotlight hopes will right the ship. Ann is ascending. Henry is faltering. She begins to imagine women coming forward to call him an abuser and his temper begins to go out of control. And yet neither have really changed. Pre-Annette and post-Annette versions of them are almost identical beyond what public perception and the tabloids have added as filter. We’re wading through redundancy as a result—save an out-of-nowhere interlude with Simon Helberg‘s accompanist singing about his aspirations of becoming a conductor. Maybe they’ll patch things up. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll go on a vacationing boat ride, get drunk, and head into a storm wherein one tragically gets lost at sea.
You’re either with the wild absurdity of what’s happening or you’re not. I wish I was with it more than I was (many sequences—especially the stand-up bits—go on far too long) because the music is fun (Carax even bookends the film with opening and closing turns for cast and crew to say “Hello” and “Goodbye”) and the performances memorable. The first half is definitely easier to get into despite the comedy acts because the main event is seeing how Henry and Ann get along (or don’t) together. Because the second half loses one (elevating Helberg’s character from background player to co-star), it really starts to spin its wheels. Suddenly Annette’s puppet takes centerstage as a miracle musical act, becoming more famous than either parent ever was.
Henry is unlikeable from frame one and that’s okay because Ann is a vision of beauty, talent, and joy. One of my favorite scenes of the whole is her dancing with Baby Annette both because it’s a heartwarming moment and because I wished in the back of my mind that someone would throw or drop the puppet whenever “she” was picked up. That’s how distracting their child being fake is. You cannot ignore it and its surreally farcical nature far outweighs the purpose of its blatant metaphor (although having Devyn McDowell come in at the very end to provide Annette human form is a nice touch to officially drive home the point). Henry is horrible, Ann is inspiring, the baby is weird, and enjoyment isn’t guaranteed.
Will fans of Sparks and/or Carax be able to look beyond its shortcomings and simplicities? I’m certain they would. I didn’t know Sparks until watching Edgar Wright‘s documentary earlier and the only Carax I’ve seen is Holy Motors (which I adored). This marriage is one with huge expectations and both parties went all out to try and meet them, but the pieces ultimately outperformed the whole for me. Annette is never better than that fourth wall-breaking opening number of “So May We Start” with its wild conceit, inventive visuals (Carax cuts and fades the image to static and score), and infectious tone. The rest is fine, but never magical enough to supply freshness beyond mere bizarreness. I’m glad I watched it, but I doubt I’ll do so again.
 ADAM DRIVER and MARION COTILLARD star in ANNETTE. © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC
 SIMON HELBERG stars in ANNETTE. Kris Dewitte / © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC
 RON MAEL and RUSSELL MAEL star in ANNETTE. © 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC