Isaac Feldberg’s review published on Letterboxd:
Madly, passionately, peculiarly hailing and deconstructing the rock opera as a grandly artificial (and thus inherently empty) display of showmanship (even as it delivers a deliciously esoteric, self-skewing spectacle of its own), Leos Carax’s Annette strikes me most as a satire through its vertiginous heightening effect.
Singing through almost all of the dialogue rather than saying it, exaggerating the staged nature of Cotillard and Driver’s romance as well as the puppet baby (as if bitterly suggesting these self-obsessed show business types could never make anything authentic, even there), Annette makes the entire world a stage, continuing to uncover new nesting-doll layers of deception and theatricality until the story becomes alienated even from itself, implicating us viewers in its messy tug-of-war between artist and audience. That artists have been asked in recent years to perform much more than simply their art, from preserving a personal mystique for papparazzi to virtue signaling when called upon to espouse moral piety, appears to drive one existential tension of Annette: to the modern artist, can anything be truly real and go unperformed?
Up for debate in this most playful film is any line between art and reality, and Carax bakes that self-questioning into every moment of a film that’s driven most by the existential turpitude of a creative grappling with all that his vanity begets, and how it leads him away from any spirituality that would require reckoning with forces larger than oneself. More in the lineage of Ken Russell’s Tommy than golden-age movie musicals, Annette translates Sparks’ impish, postmodern sense of humor into its bombastic and insistently melodramatic story.
Where the minimalist songs do not parse out narrative, they emphasize the kind of raw, repetitive emotion pushing up against the film’s formal compositions, and their focus on dynamic feeling over lyrical feeling makes the film feel even more zeroed in on the failures of artistic expression to capture what’s true and innate. In their hysterical extremes, the songs also manage to call attention to the hyperbole of melodramatic stage productions, the imagined sense of forward motion a play can have.
Most of all, Annette is about Driver’s ecstatic and agonized performance, a kind of artistic self-flagellation in which he isolates the explosively masculine undercurrents of his own stardom to date (from his work on Girls all the way through Marriage Story) and exorcizes them through verse — a performer upping his game even as he plays a man swollen by the same soulless, single-minded impulse to achieve greatness. Annette is a grand tragedy of male ego as black hole, but it is also a reaffirmation of the glories of the leading man; alternately ridiculed and treated as revelatory by its filmmakers, Annette makes a mockery of artistic honesty and a monster of its central megalomaniac, but it creates sensational and highly stylized art from this concept in such a way that feels downright cheeky if not one last time self-annihilating.