‘Annette’ Review: Love Hurts

“Annette” is a musical about the ill-starred romance between two artists, a description that suggests obvious kinship with “La La Land” and “A Star is Born.” Not to play algorithm or anything, but if you liked those movies, you will probably like this one too.

Or maybe not. While it belongs, more or less, to the durable genre of backstage musical, “Annette” aims to be something darker and stranger than another angsty melodrama about the entanglements of ambition and love. It has some modern opera in its DNA — a lurid strand of violence, madness and demonic passion that evokes pre-World War II Vienna or Berlin as much as classic Hollywood. Rather than bursting into song or breaking into dance at opportune moments, the characters stream their tormented consciousnesses through lyrics that are never as simple as they sound.

“We love each other so much.” That is the refrain that sticks in your head as you attend to the tragic tale of Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann Desfranous (Marion Cotillard), a performance artist and an operatic soprano whose marriage is catnip for the tabloid media. Their love is the film’s premise and its central dramatic problem. It’s also, in a way, a red herring. The sexual bliss and emotional rapport that fill the first act give way to anger and alienation, but this isn’t just a love story with a sad ending. It’s more of a case study, a critique of the romantic mythology on which its appeal would seem to depend.

A collaboration between Ron and Russell Mael — better known as the long-lived, pigeonhole-defying band Sparks — and the director Leos Carax, “Annette” opens with an overture in the key of anti-realism. The Mael brothers, who wrote the script as well as the songs, are in the recording studio. Carax and his daughter, Nastya, are behind the mixing board. The cast and crew walk out into the street, and Driver and Cotillard slowly move into character. He puts on a flowing dark wig and then a motorcycle helmet. She climbs into a black SUV. They are now Henry and Ann. The boundary between artifice and actuality has been clearly marked for us; for these two it will be blurry, permeable and treacherous.

Carax, whose feverishly imaginative features include “Pola X” and “Holy Motors,” has never had much use for the naturalism that serves most filmmakers as a default setting. The world of “Annette” has some familiar place names (including Tokyo, London and Rio, though most of it takes place in Los Angeles), but it is a land beyond the literal, a figment of stage design, dream logic and hallucinatory expressionism. The fact that the characters sing more than they talk — even during sex — is in some ways the least strange thing about the movie, which casts a series of mechanical puppets in the title role.

Annette is the name of Ann and Henry’s daughter, and to explain her centrality to the narrative may be to risk a spoiler or two. Not that the plot is terribly intricate or surprising; it unfolds with the relentless momentum of a nightmare. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Annette in the baby carriage. What follows is drunkenness and murder; shipwreck, ghosts and guilt.

But let’s go back to the beginning, to Henry and Ann in their season of mutual enchantment. Though each has a flourishing career, it’s Henry who claims most of the attention. That’s partly charisma, partly narcissism, and entirely consistent with his identity as an artist. He is the star and author of “The Ape of God,” a one-man show (with backup singers) that traffics in the kind of belligerent self-display that popular culture sometimes mistakes for honesty.

Bursting onto the stage in a hooded bathrobe that falls open to reveal tight boxer briefs and an impressively sculpted torso, Henry harangues the audience with intimate, often obnoxious confessions. Shame and bravado are the alternating currents of his act, yoked by hyper-articulate, cynical self-consciousness. The audience laughs, though Henry isn’t telling jokes so much as daring the public to take his aggression seriously.

Is he an internal critic of toxic masculinity or an exceptionally magnetic example of it? That may be a distinction without a difference. With Henry, as with some of his hypothetical real-life analogs, it’s hard to separate the art from the artist because the defiance of such a separation is the whole point of his art.

Ann is a different kind of artist, and a less insistent presence in the film. She seems, at times, to recede in the shadow of her husband’s larger, louder personality. This can seem like a failure of imagination on the part of the filmmakers, who depict her more as the object of Henry’s desire, jealousy and resentment rather than as a creative force in her own right. She has more in common with the Cotillard characters in “Public Enemies” and “Inception” than the ones in “Rust and Bone” or “La Vie en Rose.”

That imbalance turns out to be crucial to this film’s indictment of the cruelty that is excused in the name of genius, its unsparing dissection of male entitlement. This is less a love story than a monster movie, about a man incapable of grasping the full reality of other people, including his own wife and child. (The “not all men” objection is embodied by Simon Helberg, playing a conductor who is Henry’s sometime rival for Ann’s affection.) The consequences are lethal, and the final reckoning is as devastating as anything I’ve seen in a recent film, musical or not.

Driver, some of whose best roles to date have been as troubled men of the theater (see also “Girls” and “Marriage Story”), doesn’t waste energy in trying to make Henry likable or in overselling his villainy. Instead, he’s entirely believable, not because you understand Henry’s psychological makeup, but precisely because you can’t. His megalomania distorts everything. He’s not larger than life, but he thinks he is, and Driver’s performance is perfectly scaled to that contradiction.

“Annette” masters its own paradoxes. It’s a highly cerebral, formally complex film about unbridled emotion. A work of art propelled by a skepticism about where art comes from and why we value it the way we do. A fantastical film that attacks some of our culture’s most cherished fantasies. Utterly unreal and completely truthful.

Rated R for Sturm und Drang. Running time: 2 hour 19 minutes. Watch on Amazon.

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