‘Annette’ An Intoxicating Return From Leos Carax: Review

'Annette', with its powerful performances and hazy, dreamlike aesthetic, is a haunting return from Leos Carax, and a dazzling showcase for Sparks.

This collaboration between Leos Carax and Sparks brings an operatic odyssey to the cinema screen. ‘Annette’ is a breath-taking examination of the tumulturous relationship between two performers.


Simultaneously unsettling and mesmerizing, Annette is an ambitious silver screen return from Leos Carax, in his first English-language feature film. Carax’s persistent infatuation with torturous love, coupled with fairytale-like imagery is present here, yet it is not just his own vision being played out. The basis of the film, as well as its music, comes from Russell and Ron Mael, the duo behind the experimental rock band, Sparks. The partnership between these two driving forces propels Annette into surrealist brilliance, though it is ultimately an acquired taste that only fans of Carax or Sparks might appreciate. 

The musical charts the relationship between failing comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) and the immensely talented singer, Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), which sinks deeper and deeper into a toxic nightmare. As their respective careers fall out of sync, their relationship changes when their baby, Annette, is born. The entire runtime is marred by dread and despair, framed and staged like an operatic tragedy. 

In fact, the staging of Annette is one of its unique strengths. Centred around two performers, Annette is focused on the relationship between the stage and the audience, positioning the viewer alternately throughout the film. Amongst the audience, we are forced to watch McHenry delve into bitter standup routines that permeate revulsion throughout the crowd. When positioned with Ann on stage, we are trapped in front of a thousand spectating eyes. Despite the grandiosity of Annette, there is a palpable sense of claustrophobia that plagues its two leads. As though their entire lives are cruel performances, the sets of the film are much like opera, with grand motionless structures in place of ships or roads. Carax invites the audience to spectate, yet we feel like intruders in someone else’s private hell. With any stage production, there is reliance on the props, which in this case, is the wooden puppet that plays the child Annette. The uncanny child is a mesmerizing work of craft, as the carved wooden expressions seem almost soulful, making McHenry’s financial exploitation of the child all the more heartbreaking. The puppet itself is a controversial factor of the film, with many audiences torn between love and hatred, Ironically echoing the many cold and removed audiences that Annette herself performs in front of during the film. 

Thematically, Annette examines the impact of performance on the performer, as the cyclical nature between exploitation and burnout repeats generationally. Through McHenry, the film takes an impactful yet difficult look at how acts of violent misogyny and controlling behaviour are justified as symptoms of troubled genius in acclaimed male artists. McHenry is similar to a monster from a horror film, a deranged hulking beast that towers over anyone around. Driver uses his physicality fantastically and pours his heart into a revolting, brilliant performance that anchors the film. His frantic, sharklike turn is matched by Cotillard, whose talent and soul are showcased amazingly as a foil to McHenry. When the two leads are on stage together, the film is electrifying, as the sickeningly sweet romance between the two twists into something darker.

Annette does feel like a showcase for Driver’s talents, despite Cotillard providing the most memorable vocal performance of the film. Once again, he proves himself as one of the most versatile and engaging actors currently working, with a performance of such anger and sickness that it becomes difficult to watch. Contrary to this, Simon Helberg, who plays the Accompanist, is an underutilized performance that brings kindness and calm to the inky black waters that McHenry dwells in. His smaller voice and smaller frame, wrapped in warmer colours, is often a breath of fresh air in a film that revels in tragedy.  

Visually, Annette has been crafted meticulously, despite the broad strokes of colour suited to each character. The use of lighting is astoundingly unsubtle, as each performer is wrapped in bright lights or murky shadows to match the tone. This suits the operatic tone of the film, which is matched by the Sparks Brother’s score, underscoring the drama with powerful— often funny, often disturbing—lyrics, sung in baritone or tenor. Cotillard has an astounding voice, as she gives equally with a typically brilliant performance, whilst Driver’s gravelly tone suits the sinister nature of McHenry. The lyrical repetition in each song is reminiscent of a haunting nursery rhyme, lulling the audience into a dreamlike daze, yet this hazy viewing experience is paradoxically opposed to the nail-biting tension the film radiates. 

Annette is a haunting return from Leos Carax, and a dazzling showcase for Sparks. With powerful performances and a hazy, dreamlike aesthetic, this operatic tragedy is a unique cinema experience that will remain with you for days. Annette’s use of practical sets, props and lighting are inspired, merging theatrical techniques with cinema. For both Sparks and Carax, Annette is an ambitious venture that certainly pays off.  

The Verdict

Annette is not a welcoming watch, functioning as an experience far more than escapism, yet this sinister tale, accompanied by the fierce performances of Driver and Cotillard, is one of the more engaging pieces of cinema this year. Indulgent and ostentatious, this operatic gift from Carax and Sparks utilises imagery and music to paint a portrait of two performers who find themselves lost in each other’s worlds. 

Words by Rhys Lloyd-Jones

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