By Leah Greenblatt
July 06, 2021 at 07:29 PM EDT
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Annette - Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard
Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Annette
| Credit: Amazon Studios

The 74-year-old Festival de Cannes, nestled in the cerulean elbow of France's Côte d'Azur, isn't the oldest annual celebration of film (that honor goes to Venice), or strictly the most prestigious — but it is, you could say, the one that embodies the spirit of cinema in the most old-fashioned sense; the auteurs and haute couture, the excess and artistry. And Annette, a hallucinatory musical from perennial French provocateur Leos Carax, is the kind of flamboyant singularity that feels designed for the surreal fishbowl of it all: the story-in-songs of a bad-boy comedian (Adam Driver), his opera-singer lover (Marion Cotillard), and their highly unusual child, soundtracked by the cult art-pop band Sparks.

Its bow there was greeted by a rapturous standing ovation after tonight's gala premiere, though it remains to be seen how more mainstream audiences will feel about a film (in theaters Aug. 8 and on Amazon Prime Aug. 20) that is not strictly plotted so much as willed into being by the gale force of Driver's performance and the sheer bravura strangeness of its premise. He stars as a modern Andy Kaufman type better known as the Ape of God, devouring bananas and ranting across the stage in a tenuously tied bathrobe; Cotillard is his beloved, Ann, a soprano with an ethereal gift. "I killed them, destroyed them, murdered them," he tells her of his howling followers after a sold-out show, gleefully. "I saved them," she sighs, of her own enamored crowd.

They're mad for each other, two artists at their creative zenith tripping blissfully through the golden canyons and boho mansions of Los Angeles (bless the intimacy coordinator tasked with handling the scenes in which singing and oral sex are simultaneous). Tabloid headlines ecstatically trace their rise and rise, every fresh triumph caught in the flashbulbs, and the birth of a baby girl they call Annette seems destined to only expand their perfect unit: the evidence and apotheosis of their love.

Instead, Henry's act begins to curdle, his Midas touch dissipating in a spray of rage and flop sweat, and soon his devotion to his lover begins to falter too. When her own faith is shaken by accusations against him that carry an ugly whiff of #MeToo, the story takes a bleaker turn. Cotillard is hauntingly lovely, her gaze searching out the camera like a silent movie star, and Simon Helberg, as her kindhearted accompanist, pulls in some grounding sense of moral order and ordinary life. But the screen belongs to Driver, who devours the role so ferociously you almost expect to see the film stock bubble and burn at the corners.

Carax (Holy Motors, The Lovers on the Bridge) also brings all his bits of flair — the EKG monitor in a hospital that dances an electric little jig, the onscreen audiences who sway and scold like a modern Greek chorus — to bear on Sparks brothers Ron and Russell Mael's fever-dream storyline, and the tremulous, chant-like songs that accompany it. Is Annette a farce, a metaphor, a noir meditation on fame? Only God and maybe the Maels know for sure. But like so many of the best and strangest moments that festivals like this bring, it's nearly impossible to witness it all and not walk away feeling altered (irrationally, emotionally, chemically) in some way. Grade: B+

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