Debuting on opening night of the Cannes Film Festival a full year after it was originally expected to appear, “Annette” arrives on a pedestal from which it’s too easily toppled. This latest dose of weirdness from “Holy Motors” director Leos Carax — a tortured celebrity love story set to the maddening music of Sparks and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard — would surely fare better in an underdog position than anointed from the outset. It’s not for everyone, as there’s little demand for 140-minute bummer musicals at the moment, though Carax’s grand experiment is certainly bold enough to find its share of defenders.
Maybe “Annette” is just ahead of its time, as champions of avant-garde duo Russell and Ron Mael, aka Sparks, like to say of the pair who wrote it, although Carax’s interpretation of their ironic endeavor reaches backward, braiding the sincerity of silent film with postmodern self-awareness, with wildly uneven results. Imagine a cross between King Vidor’s 1928 “Show People” and the oft-recycled “A Star Is Born” (any version will do), reimagined from the dude’s point of view.
Sparks have spent half a century dabbling in wildly different musical genres — from glam rock to disco, electro to opera — and they combine a little bit of everything in their first motion picture. The duo originally planned “Annette” (which is half-spoken, half-sung) as a high-concept narrative album, which they intended to perform live on tour, adapting it for the screen only after Carax expressed an interest.
As celebrity pairings go, this one’s even more badly matched than that of its central couple. Sparks are peppy pranksters who lace their songs with hidden jokes for in-the-loop listeners, whereas Carax sees music as the tool that can potentially heighten the emotional truths he’s been chasing across his angst-ridden oeuvre. Carax was never shy about plumbing the dark, self-destructive aspects of romance but lacked the songwriting collaborators to send past projects into the stratosphere (“Lovers on the Bridge” would’ve made a fine musical). And yet, in this particular cocktail, Carax is boiling lead to Sparks’ soda-pop fizz, sucking all the fun from the root-beer float.
What does go well with the French auteur’s honesty-insisting earnestness is Adam Driver’s over-committed lead turn. It’s the kind of performance directors tend to get only from the likes of Robert De Niro or Daniel Day-Lewis: a raging creature that consumes everything in sight. Still distractingly ripped from his “Star Wars” commitments, Driver plays Henry McHenry, an unconventional standup comedian in the vein of Andy Kaufman who’s jealous because his girlfriend, opera singer Ann Desfranoux (Cotillard), receives a different, deeper kind of adulation from audiences than he does.
She’s a persimmon-coiffed soprano praised for bringing crowds to tears, whereas he’s a bad-boy provocateur expected to make his followers laugh, and it grates on him that these two achievements are not equivalent in the public’s eyes. That may have been true a century ago, but show me a celebrity couple that has the paparazzi more excited about the fine artist than the mainstream success. We’re not dealing with Marilyn and Arthur Miller here, and Carax’s TMZ-style Show Bizz News tabloid interstitials feel hokey and unconvincing.
Rather than change his act — which probably isn’t helped by the way Henry heckles his own audience, stumbling onstage in a bathrobe and swinging his mic like Roger Daltrey — he starts to resent his partner. She gets pregnant, has a child (a remarkably detailed marionette, actually) and returns to singing, all of which is a lot more work than what Henry goes through. And yet, the movie remains firmly entrenched in the man’s mindset.
Named for Ann and Henry’s freakish doll-baby, “Annette” has something to say about truth and delusion. But mostly, it’s about the perils of self-absorption and the paradoxical way such egotism can be responsible for both success and failure. It’s the hunger that drives ambitious people, but also the poison that eats away at what they’ve achieved — and it’s the last thing audiences need to be lectured about at the movies (which is not to say it can’t be presented as subtext, as in the Coen brothers’ far superior “Inside Llewyn Davis”).
For more than a century, the popular medium of cinema has shared the exceptional feats of seemingly ordinary individuals, engaging us with innumerable Horatio Alger stories. But “Annette” begins where most of these fables end (after Sparks’ self-aware prologue, that is, in which the company, including Carax, the Mael brothers, and a small boys choir, parade from the recording booth out into the streets, chanting “So may we start” the whole way): Henry and Ann are already famous. They met and fell in love off camera. Carax never reveals any sign of the chemistry or charm that brought the two together, just the suspicion and envy that develop between them.
One night at his show, Henry claims to have killed his wife. (Shots of the crowd are awkward throughout, as badly directed extras exaggerate their reactions.) His audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or not, and neither do we. Like the Tom Cruise seminars in “Magnolia” or De Niro’s “King of Comedy” routines, Henry’s stage shows hold us in uneasy thrall, stretching out time to uncomfortable lengths.
Turns out Ann is safe, “dying” somewhere across town. That’s the movie’s reductive idea of opera: gifted women going through the motions of death, night after night, singing their hearts out as they do. But then something happens that’s such a tired and arbitrary cliché, Carax’s only choice is to render the scene surreal, to show Henry and Ann waltzing aboard a storm-battered yacht. Why these two characters, who’ve never expressed the slightest interest in sailing, should find themselves at sea is anyone’s guess. But the twist launches the already stylized film into the realm of fantasy.
From this point forward, Annette emerges as a key character — but considering that she’s represented by a wooden doll, Driver continues to upstage her, as he did Cotillard before. Why don’t Sparks give Ann an equal share of the singing? Maybe it’s the fact that in their imagined stage version, Russell and Ron Mael planned to embody Henry and another male character, that of Cotillard’s accompanist (played here by Simon Helberg, whose role also grows in the second half), and would have engaged an outside singer as Ann. Stepping aside for actors to replace them, Sparks didn’t bother to expand her part.
Meanwhile, Carax cast the film without much concern for musical ability. And yet, he insisted that his two leads sing live, recording the actors on set instead of looping them later — a daunting logistical challenge, complicated in Cotillard’s case by the decision to hire Catherine Trottman to augment her opera scenes (one of which features an amazing visual trick, in which the stage opens onto a real forest). Then there’s the matter of Sparks’ lyrics. Built on repetition rather than rhyme, their melodies are nothing like those of conventional show tunes.
Sondheim schmondheim. Instead of advancing the plot, they pick a groove and stick to it, like a broken record, recycling the same phrase over and over — “We love each other so much” or “You think I care what you think of me?” — until it becomes some kind of tantric mantra. (It’s a strategy they’ve experimented with on their albums, in songs such as “My Baby’s Taking Me Home” and “Equator.”) Depending on intonation and delivery, each new iteration of the line can vary its meaning slightly. But it can also drive you crazy, ringing through your temples like “Carol of the Bells” at Christmas.
Perhaps more sophisticated spectators will appreciate all of Carax’s unconventional choices, the overplayed trope of the sad-clown comedian (see “Joker”) and the nagging stutter of Sparks’ songwriting. But most will likely find it exhausting as a project born from a spirit of playfulness results in so little pleasure for the consumer. Even the film’s use of music is confusing: Does Henry really have backup singers at his standup shows? What are we to make of baby Annette’s unexplained operatic talents? And can you imagine anything more obnoxious than a choral version of TMZ?
Maybe it doesn’t have to make sense. Maybe we aren’t supposed to enjoy it. The message of Sparks’ movie — reinforced by their insanely prolific, 25-album career — could be seen as: Ignore the critics and just keep creating. But Carax, who’s made only five features in four decades, seems far more sensitive, and it’s not at all clear that these collaborators know how to harmonize.