Leos Carax is one of the few directors working today whose films – at least for cinephiles – are genuine events, partly because his style is so idiosyncratic as to be downright inexplicable and partly because his output is so slim. (Annette is only his sixth feature in 37 years, although he also concocted the most memorable part of the omnibus film Tokyo!.)
Annette is Carax's English language debut, it is a musical, and both screenplay and score were written by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who have performed for decades as the art pop duo Sparks. It stars Adam Driver as a popular standup comic named Henry McHenry, Marion Cotillard as his opera singer wife Ann Defrasnoux, and a beautifully articulated puppet – yes, a puppet – as their gifted little daughter Annette. Simon Helberg costars as Ann's piano accompanist. To give away much more would break the film's very strange magic spell.
Annette is not a "musical" as one would ordinarily define the term. The Maels' songs owe more to Philip Glass than to Broadway, with most cues under a minute and characterized by sparse, repetitive lyrics. Yet there remains an inexplicable catchiness to it all, in the Sparks tradition, and just as Carax's depiction of Los Angeles is not even remotely realistic, there are moments amidst the madness where he and the Maels remind us that they are seasoned professionals who know exactly what they're doing.
Cotillard and Helberg are fine, but Annette is Adam Driver's show all the way. The film asks a great, great deal of him, and he accepts the challenge fearlessly. He has a knack for being able to modulate his performance to match his director's vision, no matter how weird, while maintaining an innate vulnerability and humanity.
Annette is something special. You might hate it – or at least find it overlong – but you shouldn't miss it, especially on the big screen, where Carax's wide shots make his actors appear life size, performing on a real stage and in our very presence.