CANNES, France – The 74th Cannes Festival opened with a very unusual film on Tuesday, one that is slated to compete for the Palme D’Or, the top prize which this year will be given out by a jury headed by Spike Lee: “Annette,” by one Alex Christophe Dupont, otherwise known as Leos Carax (full disclosure: I haven’t read any of the press material for the film, on purpose, I wanted to soak up in the film’s energy. As it were, there’s little in the way of easily available press materials this year, the press mailboxes having disappeared, with them the catalogs and films’ communiqués, and many other things, for that matter, that we used to take for granted—but I digress). The “Annette” of the title is the newborn child of two performers, Henry McHenry, played by Adam Driver, and Ann Desfranoux, a role played by Marion Cotillard, France’s best-known export since Golshifteh Farahani. Annette is special, in more ways than one. For the purpose of this article, let’s just say that Annette can sing.
The McHenry and the Desfranoux characters and the push-and-pull of their bright (and brightly burning) romance: they fight, they make love, they dance, and the two sing—the entire film is sung—and it is their real voices, except the operatic bits by Desfranoux.
They’ve already met by the time the film begins. And what a beginning sequence, it’s a music recording session in a recording studio, with Carax doing a cameo as a music producer, a backup choir and some soon-to-be-named musicians (OK, it’s the Sparks Brothers), everybody’s singing and then the group spills unto the streets of Los Angeles and keeps on singing. The musical numbers are the biggest sell in this film.
Making a child, riding motorcycles (Triumph enthusiasts should add watching “Annette” to their bucket list), performing (he at his comedy shows, she being an opera performer), repairing to a house in the woods. McHenry tells Desfranoux that she keeps dying, an allusion to the divas she plays in the operas (and as diva characters go, Carmen or Isold, they sometimes do die) but also a criticism that she keeps checking out of the relationship.
Pairing Cotillard with Driver together, making Driver’s McHenry into an apopleptic—if very distant and stiff—standup (he does standup in a bathrobe and his skits are angry and cynical) comedian who is backed by the gospel choir of the beginning and rides a Bonneville (I wonder if Carax was a fan of “The Brown Bunny,” or “Under the Skin”—I know I was) Desfranoux is an opera singer who is moved by the dark and magnificent spirit.
In an apparent wink to Rocky horror picture show, McHenry’s audience is participatory and they can be quick on their feet when things don’t go their way. And we’re not talking heckling here—rather, it’s full-on odiousness. When McHenry’s routine veers cynical, a Greek choir gone rogue the audience protests, cries out and turn him out. Carax seems to want to have his way with fame, that which McHenry has earned. Or with cynics.
The Sparks, a duet of quirky brothers, wrote the film’s original music, it’s a character in its own right. The brothers wrote all the songs and have two cameos in the film. The songs are simple but very effectual, powerful vehicles for the narrative to move forward, euphoric rock opera meets incantation.
“Annette” does suffer from imperfections, which Carax’s previous 2009 turn “Holy Motors,” a did not: characters are not relatable and there’s a lot going on. Also, in a film that seems to exist inside its own time-zone, absent any recognizable markers, the film includes ultra-modern cliches, three “Just Jared”-type celebrity gossip vignettes about the couple getting married, their having a child, a possible breakup that, although they help to move the narrative forward, are a little jarring in this ultraworld of singing babies and bathrobe-laden comics. There’s even a news clip about some men who got arrested for being sex offenders and sexual harassers.
Driver’s McHenry is all facade and manly manness, and even his many musical numbers where he is obviously possessed of his love for his opera singer and his baby daughter aren’t enough to counterweight this. But maybe that’s just Adam Driver. Towards the end, he asks a friend—so to speak—The Conductor (Simon Helberg) to baby-sit Annette so that “I can blow off some steam.” As it were, just as his career begins its fast decline following McHenry’s antics on stage, Ann’s star is on the rise.
Desfranoux (Cotillard) is spectacular, authorial and grand as a successful opera singer, but she’s also vulnerable and beholden to her beau, an archaic ambiguity that alludes to the pathos underneath the triumph.
“Annette,” a definitive original, has much going on for it: it’s tragedy and a children’s tale where the fantastic meets the mundane and fame and its derivatives upends love. I can’t think of a better film to open this 74th film festival.