Brian Formo’s review published on Letterboxd:
Annette is already proving to be divisive and it’s something that you shouldn’t know too much about because the element of surprise is massive here. Without giving anything away, there is a puppet baby, a cross between Twilight’s Renesmee and Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik, but the prodigal gift of said puppet baby and the locations that those powers take it are completely under wraps here. So how did we get to a wooden puppet baby? You see, Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and Ann (Marion Cotillard) are in love. He is a performance artist stand-up comedian and she is an opera singer (insert Avril Lavigne “can I make it any more obvious?”).
He describes his comedy routine as “I killled them” and she describes her opera performance as “I saved them.” We meet them at the height of their honeymoon phase where a song highlights their differences but a sex scene montage highlights their physical connection. (For all the pre-awareness hype of Driver singing a single word in between diving back in for cunnilingus, it’s more impressive to me how Cotillard, in her big solo, takes drags from cigarettes while on the toilet and fits in a wipe while not missing a note). An important visual cue from their love story is a slow movement of Driver’s hand hovering above her shoulders as they walk in a field; his hand is like a claw, similar to a tickle game they play in which his post-coitus persona forms a claw and she recoils like a famous shot from Nosferatu, and in that moment his hand softens from that claw and they walk hand-in-hand, freshly in love. As his career starts to take a downturn after an elaborate and despondent performance of their tickle torture game on stage—that menacing hovering hand will come about with increased toxicity. A toxicity that seems to manifest itself on Driver’s skin as well, with a birth mark that is not his but grows after his daughter’s birth.
Annette, like almost all Carax films is both beguiling and messy, some moments will hit your brain on a masterpiece wavelength and others will make you wonder where the hell the story is going. For much of the first act it feels like it’s not going anywhere other than nice moments between beautiful and successful people living their best lives. Annette is so loose and ramshackle overall that, again like many of Carax’s films, it doesn’t feel grounded to anything in particular until much later in the film. While the music is undeniably Sparks, the tonal shifts, approach to art and eventually, the personal story are all Carax.
As Henry, the egotistical and devoid-of-joy comedian, Driver is a perfect partner for the former enfant terrible. His comedic act isn’t funny but Carax doesn’t fall into the trap of needing a funny standup routine that never seems to work in movies, instead it’s part of the musical patchwork and done as a character interview between performer and the audience. To highlight this, cinematographer Caroline Champetier backlights the audience in glorious colors and Sparks pens poppy responses to the dreary comedian’s queries. There aren’t punchlines but there is a musical number. And when Driver performs Henry’s unraveling stage performance, he is an absolute tour de force. Unfortunately, while Cotillard is gorgeous and sings her heart out, the movie is less interested in her character. She only gets one big solo and it’s about being worried about her husband. And although we see a lot of Henry’s performances, each time Ann’s performance, the more recognized talent, is only teased with a few notes before moving back to focus on Henry. Every time Cotillard appears on screen she’s committed to willing her character into a movie that’s less interested in her outside of her being the opposite of him.
Without getting into the territory of where the story and the couple’s baby (Annette) goes, some personal misgivings and some undeniable third act messiness aside, Annette is completely unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Carax always takes the biggest swing and he has a few massive hits here, even if he swings at every ball. Cannes 2021 was starting with safety in mind. At least their lead off film didn’t replicate that. Annette is wholly unsafe, particularly in regards to Driver’s character. It’s enchanting, it’s bizarre, it’s both transgressive and regressive, personal and impersonal. It recreates the Super Bowl as “The Hyper Bowl.” Just by mentioning that Carax featured America’s most popular sport should key you in to how wild of an experience Annette is. A puppet baby and the Super Bowl. Granted that's when the film started to veer in a direction that lost me to the abyss. Annette is the type of film that had me swooning from the start but lost me toward the end (despite a great closing number between father and daughter). But while Cannes might be working to make attendees feel safe but, at least so far, the filmmakers aren’t.
Read the rest of MY DAY ONE CANNES DIARY
p.s. I didn't know where to put these two strands that stuck with me but there's a swirling camera around Helberg—as he sings, breaks the fourth wall, then conducts, repeats—that is astounding. And I also love how in tune Carax is to the coyotes in the hills of Los Angeles. Just a constant background call every night that foretells the darker areas it goes. And Champetier's lensing throughout is phenomenal.