By Nicholas Barber7th July 2021This year's Cannes Film Festival opener stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in a musical cum celebrity satire. It's variously embarrassing and delightful, writes Nicholas Barber.T

The opening-night film at this year’s Cannes Festival is an embarrassing folly that is almost impossible to sit through. It’s also a daring, unique passion project that has you gasping with delight. I tipped back and forth between these two assessments so often during the 140 minutes of Annette that I gave myself a dose of seasickness.

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The film is a surreal, avant-garde rock opera directed by Leos Carax, maker of The Lovers on The Bridge and the fabulously bonkers Holy Motors. It’s written, with some help from Carax, by Ron and Russell Mael, aka veteran pop duo Sparks (the subject of Edgar Wright’s new documentary, The Sparks Brothers). The Maels can be spotted here and there in Annette, but their main onscreen appearance is in the uplifting opening scene, which has the band rattling through a song, So May We Begin, in a recording studio. After the first verse, the Maels stride out into the street, still singing, pursued by their quartet of backing vocalists. As they process around Los Angeles they are joined by Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, among others, and the camera stays just ahead of them (a bit like in The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony video) in one unbroken shot. It’s a joyous sequence – the most joyous part of the film, in fact – and it promises that we’re in for a rousing, arthouse version of La La Land. As it turns out, Annette is closer to an arthouse version of A Star Is Born. The first hour of the film, at any rate, is about the fraying relationship between two performers, as a woman’s career rises and a man’s falls. After that it gets much weirder.

Driver plays Henry McHenry, a bilious comedian who likes to wear a dressing gown and slippers for his misanthropic (and dreadful) stand-up show, The Ape of God. Cotillard plays his girlfriend, Ann, an opera diva who is considered by the world to be far too good for him: a report on “Showbizz News” is captioned “Beauty and The Bastard”. Nonetheless, Henry and Ann marry and have a baby, Annette, who happens to be a creepy, Chucky-like wooden puppet with the glowing heart of ET The Extra Terrestrial.

There were times when the film was so crass yet so outlandish that I wondered how it ever got made – and I suspect that the two-word answer is ‘Adam Driver’

The most captivating thing about all this is that the film is sung-through – that is, there is hardly any dialogue that hasn’t been set to the Maels’ pounding score. Henry and Ann are always singing, whether they’re fending off the paparazzi, hurtling through California on Henry’s motorbike, having sex, or, in Cotillard’s best moment, backstroking across the swimming pool outside their secluded house. It’s a wonderfully strange conceit, although anyone hoping for a toe-tapping musical might be disappointed that the Maels favour repeated chants over witty rhymes and complete songs. It gets tiresome to hear people intoning “Why did you become a comedian” and “We love each other so much” over and over again. Another sticking point is that, to begin with, the film’s formal radicalism isn’t matched by its conventional visuals or its banal story. Once the novelty of the relentless music wears off, you realise that Annette is a humourless, superficial celebrity satire that feels a decade or three out of date.

(Credit: Amazon Studios)

Nor does it explore the question, introduced in the first few minutes, of what Beauty sees in him. To put it in musical terms, Ann and Henry are one-note characters. Ann is a vision of divine loveliness and talent, while Henry is a monster of toxic masculinity. At one stage, six women are reported to have “come forward” and accused him of raging violence, but this strand is left hanging. It’s possible that it is simply Ann’s fevered dream – it’s not easy to tell in a film that is as dreamlike as this – but even so, if you’re going to allude to a famous man’s abuse of women, it should be more than a throwaway aside.

There were times when the film was so crass yet so outlandish that I wondered how it ever got made – and I suspect that the two-word answer is “Adam Driver”. It’s hard to imagine that any other actor would or could play his role. Between Annette, BlackKklansman, Paterson, The Dead Don’t Die and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Driver has become the patron saint of oddball indie projects that premiere at Cannes. His glowering, fearsomely physical performance here is a tour de force.

It’s not quite enough to save the film’s first half, but the second half is where things really get going. Still a toddler – and still made of wood – the couple’s Pinocchio-like daughter suddenly starts trilling with Ann’s miraculous singing voice. A melodrama then becomes a macabre fairy tale, as dark and fantastical as the Maels’ haunted fun-house music deserves. It’s kitsch at times and transcendent at others, but the delicate puppetry and the gonzo ambition will guarantee Annette a cult following.

In future, it should be shown in midnight-movie double bills with Brian De Palma’s bizarre 1974 rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. For now, it’s just the kind of film you want as a Cannes opener, with its explosive mix of crowd-pleasing Hollywood glamour and European experimental oddness. Annette is sure to be divisive, but it’s a curio that demands to be seen. It’s not as if you get to watch surreal, avant-garde rock operas very often. On the other hand, you might think that that’s for the best.