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Movie Musical 'Annette' Is A Straightforward Story Yet A Directorial Fever Dream


The rock opera "Annette" got this year's Cannes Film Festival off to a boisterous start. The crowd gave a full five-minute ovation for stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, also for the band Sparks, which composed the music. Our critic Bob Mondello says that the festival audience going crazy kind of makes sense because the film itself is kind of deranged.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Before there's anything to look at on screen - and there will be astonishing things to look at - we hear the voice of director Leos Carax, telling us that he intends what we are about to see to be literally breathtaking.


LEOS CARAX: (As himself) Breathing will not be tolerated during the show. So please take a deep last breath right now.


CARAX: (As himself) Thank you.

MONDELLO: And then he gathers his cast.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) So may we start?

MONDELLO: And they sing their way out of the recording studio...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) So may we start?

MONDELLO: ...And into the streets of Los Angeles...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) May we now start?

MONDELLO: ...To start a story of odd couple Henry and Ann, entertainers of radically different temperaments. Henry calls himself the ape of God and stalks the comedy club stage...


ADAM DRIVER: (As Henry) I'm here to make you laugh tonight.

MONDELLO: ...In a green hooded bathrobe, scowling and muttering at his audience.


DRIVER: (As Henry) Yes, laugh, laugh, laugh.


DRIVER: (As Henry) Well, I'm not sure I can do it tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters) Aww (ph).

DRIVER: (As Henry) I'm not sure I should even try.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (As characters) Ooh (ph).

DRIVER: (As Henry) Making people laugh is disgusting.

MONDELLO: He means that. Alienating paying customers is his shtick. And as played almost psychotically by Adam Driver, Henry's good enough at insulting patrons, it's amazing he still has any. But on this night, his rant includes the confession that he's gotten engaged to a far classier celebrity who's played by Marion Cotillard.


DRIVER: (As Henry) No, this ain't a joke so far. Yes, Ann Defrasnoux...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh, no.

DRIVER: (As Henry) ...The opera (ph) star.


DRIVER: (As Henry) What's wrong, lady? Ann and me - you disagree? Why, is she too perfect?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters) Yes, yes, yes.

DRIVER: (As Henry) And I some loathsome insect?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (As characters) Yes, yes, yes.

DRIVER: (As Henry) OK, I'll accept that.


DRIVER: (As Henry) But Ann the soprano has changed me.

MONDELLO: At this point, it may occur to you that Russell and Ron Mael of the band Sparks, who wrote the script and the songs, are after a phantom of the comedy club vibe - innocent soprano adored by creepy misfit. And it does play that way for a bit. There's even a potential savior - Ann's lovestruck accompanist played by Simon Helberg.


SIMON HELBERG: (As The Conductor) Ann's the one with the genius, the grace. I'm the one with the technical expertise. Oh, the Ts (ph).

MONDELLO: But the plot heads out on its own when Ann gives birth to...



MONDELLO: ...Who is mostly played not by an infant but by a puppet. I wondered for a moment if there was a meta joke there about Marion Cotillard giving birth to a marionette, but I'm pretty sure that's not intended. The fact that it occurred to me, though, suggests how strange the film was starting to seem. Director Carax likes to match stunning images to befuddling plot lines. His film "Holy Motors" is at once exquisite and impenetrable. But in "Annette," he's telling a pretty straightforward story about careers, egos and temperaments crashing into each other.


COTILLARD: (As Ann) Are you drunk, Henry?

DRIVER: (As Henry) I'm not that drunk.

COTILLARD: (As Ann) But I'll kill my voice out here (ph).

MONDELLO: He's just heightening it until it looks and feels like grand opera. It sounds more down to earth because the score is pop and the stars, while pleasant singers, are not trained vocalists. They act the songs while the director whips up hallucinations behind them.


ADAM DRIVER AND MARION COTILLARD: (Singing as Henry and Ann) We love each other so much.

MONDELLO: And they're off on a motorcycle odyssey to a fantastical mansion in the woods. The movie "Annette," theater-besotted, less concerned with logic than with guilt and self-loathing, is a directorial fever dream - the sort that mainstream audiences don't usually embrace. But who knows? As Sparks might say, they may now start. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.