If nothing else, the Oscar-nominated “Marriage Story” is proof that struggling relationships can make for not just great cinema, but great opportunities for Adam Driver to burst into song. “Annette,” the newest film featuring Driver and Marion Cotillard from eccentric French filmmaker Leos Carax offers him a second act in this regard, albeit one that fails to craft as compelling a story as its predecessor.
A musical delivered entirely in song and written entirely by Ron and Russell Mael (otherwise known as the pop-rock duo Sparks), “Annette” tells the tumultuous story of a high-profile couple in the entertainment industry that gives birth to a wooden baby with a miraculous gift. More peculiar in its execution than its already absurd premise, “Annette” immediately casts a uniquely alluring spell over audiences, but struggles to retain the magic throughout its 140-minute runtime.
Those familiar with Carax’s earlier work have some idea of what’s in store: self-assured, creative direction, beautiful production design and a flair for dramatic visual style. All of that is here. The film’s introduction drops us straight into a Los Angeles recording space where the Sparks brothers, as well as a live band and backing singers, are starting up their instruments. Carax sits behind the mixing console with his daughter as the band fires up into the extravagant opening number “So May We Start?”
Midway through the beginning verse, the brothers stand up and make their way out of the studio; the camera follows them outside where they’re joined in song by Driver, Cotillard and the rest of the film’s cast, not yet in character. The ensemble performance sets the stage for the story to follow as the actors take their positions and the musical gets underway. It’s a dazzling introduction; Carax and company aren’t just breaking the fourth wall, they’re establishing it right before our very eyes.
Driver plays Henry McHenry, a provocative, aggressive stand-up comedian billed as “The Ape of God.” His horribly unfunny live show has garnered him a large following selling out venues every night where — clad in a boxer’s robe — he delivers a borderline self-destructive routine that practically demands the audience laughs. Less controversial but every bit as fiery is his intense romance with Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard), a beloved opera singer who sings of death with grace and majesty. Their romance is practically all over the Hollywood tabloids, who’ve dubbed them “Beauty and the Bastard.”
The chemistry between Driver and Cotillard fuels “Annette” through its first third; there’s motorcycle rides, musical sex and more, all made more arresting by the Maels’ operatic score. Nearly every thought and feeling the couple experiences are on display in song; it’s jarring from the get-go, but sweeping nonetheless.
But that fuel runs out fast. The rest of the film plays out like a strange fever dream somewhere between “Pinocchio” and “A Star Is Born,” chronicling the couple’s marriage, the subsequent rise of Ann’s career and the downfall of McHenry’s with equal boldness but less clarity than what came before. A sequence where six women come forward accusing McHenry of sexual violence ends up being a throwaway, and both characters become increasingly one-note. Before long, the sheer physicality of Driver’s performance is the last thing keeping the film engaging.
By the time the couple gives birth to their child, the wooden baby Annette, the jig is up: The unrestrained singsonginess of everything fails to conceal a convoluted script with a jumbled message about the pitfalls of celebrity and creation that fails to match the film’s inventive direction.
There’s an emotionally potent sequence featuring an orchestra and Simon Helberg of “The Big Bang Theory” fame, who, as Ann’s ex-lover and devoted friend The Accompanist, adds an appropriate amount of tenderness to the film. And some visual moments (a moonlit waltz atop a yacht on the stormy seas and a strobe-lit bender) are striking. But ultimately, “Annette” sails off too deep into the imagination and muddles its message, failing to juggle its surrealism and drama convincingly — it’s a mixed bag of a film where sparks fly high and yet, somehow, little magic is actually had.