‘Annette’ Review: All Dolled Up

Considering how bonkers Annette sounds on paper — a musical by Leos Carax, of Holy Motors fame, in which Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard have a wooden mannequin for a baby and the guy from Big Bang Theory plays piano — it’s astonishing how tedious it is to actually watch. Everything gonzo and disorienting about Carax’s previous film is here flattened into a limp, dragging structure which transforms the director’s fixation on the nature of performance, projection, and personhood from an ambiguous and ever-shifting socio-sexual monstrosity to the thuddingly banal metaphor of American family life. The doll functions as an extension of edgy comedian Henry McHenry’s (Adam Driver) sense of self, its ghostly relationship with the spirit of its dead mother, Ann (Cotillard), a clear indicator that Henry saw her as a kind of outgrowth of his existence as well.

Then there’s the songs. My God, the songs. Flat declarations of the events of the dirt-simple story belted out again and again as the camera circles with dramatic remove. “I’m dying, dying, dying,” sings Ann at the climax of her performance as a soprano. Cotillard has serious pipes, as does Driver, but whatever observational satire Carax is gunning for with such purposefully flat and dull musical numbers cannot withstand the sheer monotony of sitting through them. Again and again we’re subjected to the same lines, the same ideas. Again and again we circle Henry’s discomfort at his own career’s waning while Ann’s soars to new heights. He laments getting stuck home “babysitting” while his wife astonishes the world with her ethereal, piercing voice. It’s about as emotionally complex as According to Jim, and if the doll adds an eerie, unsettling element to that banality, it still fails to pierce it.

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There are a few slim pleasures to be had in Carax’s latest. The glamor with which he shoots the backyard of the McHenry-Defrasnoux household, a storybook enclosure with a lap pool which more resembles a pond. The alien expanse of polished black rock on which Henry and Annette wash up after a disaster at sea. But these strange and captivating images are few and far between, and once they’re over what we have left to look forward to is a boilerplate cuckolding storyline barely kept afloat by a surprisingly excellent Simon Hedelberg, whose nervous but competent energy as Ann’s accompanist and later Henry’s business partner at least puts a little bite into the film’s plodding tone. He has a believable physical presence which works with Annette’s strange, affectless tone rather than against it, as Driver and Cotillard with their movie star good looks and larger than life body language often do.

All of which leaves us with the doll, a disturbing little denizen of the uncanny valley who toddles passively through the film before finding her selfhood and bringing her father to justice for his crimes, after which she becomes a real human child. She has escaped her objectification at her father’s hands, cast off the repressive legacy of her mother, and attained selfhood. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of story, and if you’d told me Carax was going to do it I’d probably have been interested in seeing how it turned out. Now that it exists, it’s a disappointing mess of shopworn themes and aurally grating music, a dreary two-hour-and-change slog with only its own self-conscious oddness to lean on.

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