Some things you expect from an opera: music, sung dialogue, exaggerated emotion. Some things you may not expect but are not surprised by: romantic passion, star-crossed lovers, death. Some things just aren’t on the list: stand-up routines, Adam Driver, an animatronic doll.
“Annette,” a sort-of opera, has them all on offer (the animatronic doll is the title character). It opens in theaters Friday and becomes available Aug. 20 for streaming on Amazon Prime. Driver and Marion Cotillard star. Leos Carax, with his first feature since “Holy Motors” (2012), directed. Ron and Russell Mael, of the art-rock duo Sparks, wrote the script, music, and lyrics.
For 45 minutes or so, “Annette” is strange and borderline transfixing. Then it gets considerably stranger and retreats from that border into territory that’s equal parts dismaying and inexplicable. It’s a movie that wants to push moviegoers’ buttons, but it’s a movie wearing mittens. They’re expertly made, highly artful mittens, but that doesn’t matter. Buttons and mittens have about as much in common as Adam Driver and opera do. (He has a light tenor, by the way, and his singing is usually OK.)
Begin at the beginning — and not just because that’s the obvious place to begin. Begin at the beginning because the beginning is so glorious it almost justifies the rest of “Annette.” It’s a three-minute tracking shot that starts in a Los Angeles recording studio and proceeds out to the nighttime streets. The Maels (who appear again at the end of the movie) kick things off. Driver, Cotillard, and four backup singers join them as they exit the studio. Outside, the third-billed Simon Helberg and a few choirboys fall in with the group. All the while everyone’s striding along, singing an insistent, minimalist number called “So May We Start.”
Not quite an overture, it’s much more than a curtain-raiser. The result is an almost complete moviegoing high: motion and music and star power and technique combining to take the audience to a place they could not have previously imagined and now wouldn’t want to imagine being without.
Why “almost” complete? A complete moviegoing high involves one more, crucial element: emotion. “Annette” is so mannered and airless that emotion has little or nothing to do with it. Mittens don’t just make it hard to push buttons. They keep the skin they conceal from breathing. Opera, even at its frequent worst, seeks to heighten emotion. “Annette” deflects it. For a while, that feels liberating — for us even more than the characters. Then it just feels oppressive.
Driver, who spends much of the movie making you remember he once played someone named Kylo Ren, is Henry McHenry. It’s a name worthy of a parable. A very successful comedian, Henry bills himself as The Human Ape and practices a particularly pugilistic version of stand-up. The pugilism seems that much more belligerent for his performing in robe and slippers. Carax brilliantly presents two of the routines, mostly in long shot, with the audience as a de facto chorus.
Cotillard is Ann Defrasnoux, a famous soprano. (Helberg plays her accompanist.) We see her in scenes from several of her opera performances. Usually she’s dying — which is interesting, since in his performances Henry is usually killing. It’s true that Ann comes across as a bit of a drip, but Carax and the Maels do nothing to counter that. The presentation of her performance scenes seems more dutiful than inspired, especially in comparison to the treatment Henry’s routines get.
Maybe the most inexplicable thing among the movie’s many inexplicabilities is the near-complete waste it makes of an actress as gifted as Cotillard. (It’s an instance of how fundamentally misogynistic “Annette” is.) Although Ann’s opera scenes are dubbed, Cotillard does her own singing otherwise.
Henry and Ann are lovers. They marry. They have a baby, whom they dote on. The baby is (mostly) played by the doll. This idiosyncratic casting does several things. It’s surprising, until the audience catches on to it, and amusing, ditto. It serves as an alienation, or distancing, effect. In practical terms, it allows Carax and the Maels to let various dark things happen onscreen without viewers worrying about the effect on an actual child. (It also allows the child to do some pretty improbable things of her own without straining credulity to the breaking point.) Of course maybe the issue is more the effect on viewers, since as Annette begins to grow up there can be at times a certain Chucky aspect to her appearance.
Several unexpected developments occur, and using “unexpected” to refer to events in a non-exploitation movie where a doll plays the title character is really saying something. They’re so unexpected — well, one of them has a grim emotional logic, but it’s still shocking — that to discuss them would be unfair. Not that plot much concerns Carax and the Maels. Narrative, such as it is, is just a means to an end. Fair enough, that’s true of most “real” operas, too. The problem is what exactly that end might be — not meaning so much (meaning is shrink wrap) as purpose. So maybe the purpose is to provide an excuse for “So May We Start.” As someone once said, in my beginning is my end. Fair enough again. But what about those other 137 minutes?
Directed by Leos Carax. Written by Ron Mael and Russell Mael. Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Dedham Community. 140 minutes. R (sexual content, nudity, language)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.