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Adam Driver, in dim blue light with fog and tree shapes behind him, in Annette Photo: Amazon Studios

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The mind-bending musical Annette is all things and no things at the same time

It’s a showcase for Adam Driver, and beyond that, a dream, a metaphor, a joke provocation, or all three

Adam Driver has long relished the role of complicated cad. Infuriatingly combative yet undeniably alluring, he broke through on Girls as the ultimate hipster fuckboy. Then he rocketed that maddening appeal to a galaxy far, far away as Star Wars’ dark-hearted hunk Kylo Ren. Bringing boiling rage and soured love back down to earth in Marriage Story, Driver not only impressed critics, but also earned his second Academy Award nomination. Now he’s swinging that same scoundrel niche into surreal terrain with Leos Carax’s provocative, peculiar musical Annette.

Don’t be fooled by the title. Though Annette is named for two characters’ doll-faced daughter, the story is firmly focused on Driver’s latest rogue: Henry McHenry, a stand-up who treats comedy like a full-contact sport. Calling himself the “Ape of God,” Henry strides onstage draped in a mangy green bathrobe, like a prize fighter on a losing streak. He doesn’t tell jokes so much as he attacks the audience with manic aggression, commanding that they laugh.

And they do, in a lively, swaying chorus, which swiftly establishes that Henry is at the top of his game. Swinging his microphone cord around like a whip, he is master of the crowd, a god of the stage. His body is muscular and rigid like a snake ready to strike. His long limbs lash out into high kicks and sweeping gestures, a dance that plays like a dare to brawl. Naturally, Henry thinks of his performance in terms of violence. “I killed them, destroyed them, murdered them,” he coos to his opera-singer lover Ann (Marion Cotillard). “How’d your gig go?” Her gig was a lofty aria about fear and death, which earned her rapturous applause. Thinking back on it, Ann smiles sublimely. “I saved them.”

Marion Cotillard, in bathing suit and white swim cap, examines herself in a round mirror in Annette Photo: Amazon Studios

They are an odd couple, not just for their dissonant attitudes and art forms, but also visually. The American leading man towers over the petite French actress. When he pulls her in for a kiss, it’s unclear whether he’s going to cradle her or crush her. Their onscreen chemistry is ferocious. A dreamy love ballad sweeps the audience through their hazy days and hot nights, where they make beautiful music together, literally and metaphorically. But this bliss is sadly short-lived. Marriage, career swings, and a baby push their relationship into strained terrain, careening them down a dark path that promises devastation.

The details of their decline are achingly familiar, plucked from any number of celebrity scandals, including #MeToo allegations and even classic Hollywood true-crime speculations. But Carax electrifies the stale ideas with heaps of style. For starters, Sparks — the quirky American pop duo Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright just profiled in his first documentary — co-wrote Annette’s screenplay and all its music. Brothers Ron and Russell Mael score the big emotional moments with bombastic orchestration, and spell out their sentiment in simple lyrics that repeat over and over with exuberance. Thus, “We Love Each Other So Much” isn’t just a title, it’s most of the lyrics of the ballad that plays as Driver and Cotillard lounge into glossy love scenes, including a much-buzzed-about bit where Henry takes a break from cunnilingus to sing a phrase above his lover’s labia. This moment of naked emotion in such a provocative pose is jarring and almost funny, which is true of much of Annette. It isn’t clear whether that humor is intended.

Some sequences are clearly meant to elicit laughter. For instance, a garish series of gossip news reports that crash into the narrative have zippy graphics, a blaring reporter, and comically clumsy Photoshop art, meant to look like paparazzi pics of the famous couple. Structurally, these scenes swiftly deliver exposition, but they’re also a smirking satirization of celebrity entertainment reporting, which makes a feast out of speculating about the private lives of public figures. This is a running theme throughout the film: the tension between what is real and what is performance. But where that line is drawn is often blurred, making for murky readings of the film’s intention.

By displaying artificiality throughout, Carax pushes audiences out of the standard suspension of disbelief. The opening treats the film like a stage production. Over a black screen, an MC commands the audience not to disrupt the performance by laughing, crying, farting, or breathing. Then the lights come up in a recording studio, where Sparks is poised to perform. The brothers ask, “So may we start?” And so goes that eponymous song, which travels with them out of the studio and into the streets, where Driver, Cotillard, and their co-star Simon Helberg join in — but out of costume. As the march concludes, they wig up and switch out of their street clothes, and into a more camera-ready wardrobe. From there, the story begins. Yet reminders of artifice persist. Chief among them is the performance choice for their child Annette.

Hinted at in trailers and revealed in reviews out of its Cannes premiere, Annette features a central performance by a series of puppets in place of an actual child. There’s no attempt to fool our eye, American Sniper-style. Annette is a felt-skinned creation with visible joints. She is clearly a puppet, and we are meant to see that. Beyond emphasizing the artifice within the narrative, making the child a literal object reflects how her parents see her. To both, Annette is theirs like a plaything or an art project

Who will shape this gifted girl becomes their ultimate battle — but a regrettably one-sided one. Carax gives Henry’s aggro anti-hero so much room to hulk and rhapsodize that Ann is woefully thinly sketched. She feels like a character on loan from the Christopher Nolan Doomed Wives collection, in which Cotillard has been underused before, as Inception’s wan femme fatale.

Surprisingly, Annette proves a more compelling screen partner for Driver. The puppetry team did such an outstanding job that it’s absolutely eerie. The clumsy physicality of a toddler, the soft but sad glance of a child in distress, and the careless gestures of being alive are all captured with extraordinary precision. (Bradley Cooper with that awful American Sniper doll could never.) Before long, it doesn’t feel absurd that Annette is a puppet. That’s partially because Driver never flinches in the face of such an odd “reality.” He handles the child with a mix of tenderness and anxiety, as Henry handles all things he loves. His chaotic energy opposite this fragile child makes for stomach-churning suspense, underscored by songs that sing of ambition more than love.

On top of all this, Carax slathers his film in a dreamy production design. Vivid colors burst forth, even from the darkest scenes and deepest shadows. Los Angeles becomes a landscape of neon lights, glowing swimming pools, and glittering lanterns. It’s the glossy finish of a fairy tale, which fits the fantasy elements that waltz into Annette’s second half. But amid all this style, all this provocation, all this bombast, it’s unclear what Carax is trying to say, given that his unfurling sequences might be revealed to be dreams, gags, or feints.

Is Henry’s story meant to be a cautionary tale about toxic masculinity? Is It a lament about the sacrifices made to fame? Is it a tragedy about the slippery loss of identity to persona? Is it a fable about the cannibalistic nature of creation? All of the above or none of the above are possible. Still, the answer may not matter, as the film is nonetheless a fascinating albeit wonky journey, exploding with color, bursting with song, and indulgent in artistry.

At two hours and 20 minutes, this musical rambles into curious tangents, few of which pay off in satisfying ways. But the film is never boring, because Carax brings the primal imagination that made his film Holy Motors astounding, and turns it toward the expectations of Hollywood romance. The result is a twisted love child that refuses to sing a sensible song. Perhaps that was the point. Maybe Annette is less a movie and more a mood. Perhaps the bookends that serve to introduce the cast and orchestra intend to urge us to enjoy the experience, and not fret on what it meant. Or maybe Carax’s latest is accidentally indecipherable.

Whatever its intentions, Annette is remarkable. It’s an exhilarating collision of cinema, live concerts, stage shows, and celebrity culture, shaken up and let loose with abandon. Its message might be lost, but the emotions still hit hard, particularly in a finale that strips away the flash and artifice to concentrate on something pure, painful, and unforgettable. (For the full effect, stay through the end credits.) It’s enough that Carax has created a film that tosses us out on the pavement with the heady high of a carousing live show.

Annette opens in theaters on August 6, and on Amazon Prime on August 20.

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