Annette ★★★

In any piece of theater, there exists an implied suspension of disbelief. No matter how detailed the sets are or how well the costumes are designed, theatre requires a certain degree of buy-in from the audience. For instance, the audience imagines that a mechanical lion costume is a real lion, despite being able to see it for what it really is: an act.

But film is a different medium altogether. When you watch a movie, your brain often doesn’t need to fill in the gaps. What you see is what you get. If something doesn’t look like a living, breathing lion, it isn’t a lion, at least according to today’s standards. On stage, a person might be able to produce some specific hand gestures and body language that gives you an idea of their objective, character and environment. That same luxury is not supplied in cinema — movie watchers expect the film to convince them of its reality.

Director Leos Carax’s new musical movie “Annette” — his first feature film since “Holy Motors” in 2012 — toes the line between theatre and cinema, making its reality sometimes difficult to discern.

The plot follows stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) as he falls in love and has a child with an opera singer, Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard). The premise is simple, but the film’s presentation as a theatrical rock opera opens up many more thematic possibilities than meet the eye. The elaborate set design and vivid effects portray a world that may not be as real as cinema always seems to us. This isn’t your average musical movie. When audience members attending Henry’s comedy show shout scripted lines back at him while he tells his jokes, you realize that everyone in the world of “Annette” is a performer in one way or another.

At times, the film feels like it would be better suited for the stage than the screen. That’s not a criticism; in fact, Carax himself seems acutely aware of this. His directing style adds a heightened sense of fantasy to the story. For example, Henry and Ann’s child Annette is inexplicably shown as a wooden doll, and every environment on screen appears so cleanly staged that I couldn’t picture any real people living there.
Yet every aspect of the film’s design is fully realized, with a tactile feel. The contrast between this film’s tangible textures and its fantastical elements lends an uncanny atmosphere to the whole affair. It’s as if we’ve stepped directly into the material universe of musical theatre.

While the abstract nature of “Annette” may get tedious for some viewers, the film impresses on all fronts, giving everyone something to love. The music, lyrics and script were all created by brothers Ron Mael and Russell Mael, better known as the musical duo Sparks. If you’ve listened to any of their other music, you know that it’s not just Leos Carax doing the heavy lifting in terms of theatricality. Every song is fierce, eccentric and grandiose. The lyrics tell the story in a simplistic way, with expository verses and repetitive choruses. This approach can make the 140-minute run time of “Annette” drag that much more as characters repeat information we already know or indicate a predictable turn of the story to come.

However, the awe-inspiring visuals and flamboyant instrumentation coalesce to produce a uniquely melodramatic flair. During many of the extended musical passages, the camera will glide across the sets in magnificent, satisfying long takes that capture emotions in full force. The opening number has some of the highest, most cathartic energy you’ll see in a film this year. It follows the main actors, director, screenwriters and a children’s chorus on a triumphant walk through the city as they sing towards the audience, breaking the fourth wall and getting us involved in the action right away.

But the strong emotions of the film wouldn’t be as impactful without its performers. Marion Cotillard is timid yet explosive when she needs to be. She’s the kind of actress who can simply sit still and breathe to intensify a scene. Adam Driver’s depraved stand-up comic couples the fury of Kylo Ren in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” with the existential edge of a Bo Burnham special. By the film’s end, the strong forces of his acting deteriorate, until he’s portraying a man who’s truly broken. Simon Helberg, best known as Howard Wolowitz in “The Big Bang Theory,” also makes an appearance as Ann’s conductor. He embodies the role well enough to make you forget about quirky Howard.

For all of its high effort and talent, I can’t help but wonder what exactly I should take away from the film, what it’s really about. Should we take its theatrics at face value as we would a piece performed on stage? Or does the contrast between textured reality and blatant fantasy point to something deeper?

After the initial reaction to the film’s idiosyncratic decor, “Annette’s” laborious and pretentious wanderings felt tiresome. Whether they’re meant to be pretentious or they’re simply another display of the distortions of fiction, I couldn’t say for sure. If the film is a critique, what is it critiquing? Fame? Celebrity? Greed? Ambition? It’s difficult to find a reason floating in the madness of “Annette.”

Though the film wades in familiar territory of surrealism (“Birdman,” anyone?), I can’t call it unoriginal. The experience alone is something to behold. Regardless of whether you enjoy the film by the end, I think you’d be hard pressed to say there’s anything like it.

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