‘Annette’ review: Adam Driver takes top billing in a mad, must-see musical

As enigmatic stand-up Henry, the 'Marriage Story' actor hits top form

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    Nine years ago, brothers Russell and Ron Mael wrote the music for what they believed would be an operatic new album for their pop alias Sparks. Filmmaker Leos Carax had another idea. The French arthouse director instead translated their raw material into a combustible musical melodrama peppered with meta meditations on fame.

    Annette begins with one such self-referential moment: a brisk ensemble number that lives outside the world of the film. Adam Driver, looming, and Marion Cotillard, hanging dutifully off of his arm, stride towards the beginning of their characters’ stories, grabbing props as they go and starting the narrative on its off-kilter axis.

    Driver plays Henry, a confrontational, enigmatic and increasingly unlikeable stand-up comic who is more provocative than funny. Cotillard plays a lauded soprano named Ann, who marries and then has a baby, Annette, with Henry after a whirlwind romance.

    Annette
    Adam Driver plays stand-up comic Henry. CREDIT: MUBI

    Cotillard brings an ethereal presence to the film but Annette is without question a showcase for Driver. With each part, from his sultry breakout in Lena Dunham’s Girls to his sweat-and-blood effort in Marriage Story, Driver has carved his own path through Hollywood, away from more conventional stars of his age and stage of career.

    Through Annette, he makes a grand, permanent departure from his peers – this wretched, egotistical role simply wouldn’t fit anyone else as effortlessly. In the moments before he steps out on stage, Driver as Henry jogs relentlessly on the spot, his strong, hairless shins poking out of a hooded dressing gown, simultaneously smashing a banana into his mouth and smoking a cigarette. It’s a ludicrous sight to behold, and yet Driver makes it formidable.

    It’s this propulsive energy that keeps Annette from lagging, even at a bloated two-hours-and-20-minutes runtime. All the while, Sparks’ music courses through the carnage. Their cerebral approach to their craft has kept them on the periphery of mainstream music throughout their 50-year career, but their soundtrack to the film is an engorged melange of plucky synth and haunting glam rock, all underscored with tragedy even at the height of Henry and Ann’s handsome relationship.

    Annette
    Marion Cotillard stars opposite Driver as Ann. CREDIT: MUBI

    Annette doesn’t say anything new about fame, which Carax portrays as a sickness. The developments in Henry and Ann’s relationship are narrated by a faux celebrity reporter, and an underplayed #MeToo storyline rears its head as Henry’s ailing ego makes him an increasingly unpredictable threat.

    Instead, the film twists itself into a baroque nightmare, with Carax choosing to lean into spectacle over any lasting message. Cotillard and Simon Helberg, who has put his Big Bang Theory days firmly behind him with a small but impactful performance as Ann’s lovesick composer, hold up the surrounding film with aplomb. Annette endures however because of Driver, and the fame guzzling monster that the director has created for him. Henry’s characteristics are transferable to any man who wields power, but Driver makes him unique, and certifies the actor as one of the most engaging and unique performers working today.

    Details

    • Director: Leos Carax
    • Starring: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
    • Release date: September 3 (in UK cinemas, TBA elsewhere)
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