Set in Los Angeles it concerns the relationship between Henry (Adam Driver), a successful, alternative stand up comedian and an equally successful opera singer Ann (Marion Cotillard). Different as chalk and cheese, they fall in love and get married. The media see them as the perfect golden couple, blissfully happy. But when their child Annette is born, the whole story takes a much darker tone, heading towards tragedy.
We know we’re in for something different when right at the beginning of the film the voice of the director commands us to pay total attention – “don’t talk, don’t breathe”.
We then move into a recording studio session, after which the whole cast led by two members of Sparks along with Henry and Ann come out from the studio and lead the whole cast of the film through the streets jovially singing “May we start?” So far, so jolly.
The contrasting lives of the two main characters are symbolised by their transport – a motor bike for him, a chauffeured limousine for her. While their songs and scenes together are almost conventionally romantic and at times sexy.
Henry’s act as a stand up comedian is aggressively weird, compared to the almost ethereal presentation of Ann’s opera singing. He warms up backstage like a boxer wearing a hooded robe over a pair of trunks, while onstage he throws the microphone about, declaims in a lot and is not very funny. The first time we see his act, which also has a female backing group singing in support, the audience adore him. They react in song, as indeed do all the supporting roles throughout the film, even the walk ons and bystanders. They are the chorus.
The second time we see Henry’s act however, when he talks about tickling his wife to death, he is met with hostility. By then the couple’s child Annette has been born and this is where the film starts to get really dark and disturbing.
For a start Annette is played by a puppet. And a very expressive puppet, a triumph of the art, who makes Pinocchio look wooden. As the child becomes a toddler (and Cotillard disappointingly disappears from the story) we discover Annette’s talent. Though still tiny, she has inherited the powerful, golden voice of her mother.
Henry becomes obsessed with promoting and exploiting Annette’s surprising talent, assisted by Simon Helberg as The Accompanist, who was secretly in love with her mother. It is an obsession which destroys him.
The story is rounded off at the end of the film with a moving encounter between Henry and his daughter, now played by a human being (Devyn McDowell).
Annette is innovative, entertaining and disturbing – and well performed, particularly by Driver. Comparable in its darkness to The Phantom of the Opera, and in its technique to Jerry Springer, the Opera. I suspect it would also adapt successfully into a stage show.