Annette, the musical collaboration between French filmmaker Leos Carax and the band Sparks that opened the 74th Cannes Film Festival, is the definition of “a lot going on.” It’s a twisted love story between Adam Driver’s aggressive comedian, who bills himself as “the ape of God,” and Marion Cottillard’s purehearted opera singer that eventually unfurls into a commentary on fame, creativity, and the bottomless depths of self-hatred. There’s a duet sung mid-cunnilingus, key exposition revealed in purposefully shitty CGI showbiz-news segments, and an extended dream sequence in which Driver’s character gets “#MeToo’d.” I saw it at the end of a brain-bending day of travel, having gone 30 hours or so without sleep. Remarkably, this put me exactly on the movie’s wavelength. At times, I swore the theater itself was swaying along to the music, but that was probably just me.
Also, the titular role is played by a puppet.
This, too, I had to check to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating — but believe me, it was real. Annette, you see, is the couple’s child, and like many children, she seems at first less like her own person and more like the embodiment of her parents’ hopes and fears. (Upset he’s been left at home to babysit, Driver’s character has a split-second vision in which he has actually sat on her and killed her. It’s that kind of movie.) When we first glimpse her, she’s swaddled up in Driver’s arms, and the fact that she’s a puppet might read as a bit of logistical make-do. Though even now, there are hints that infant Annette is advanced for her age: Unlike the American Sniper baby, her limbs move all on their own.
But then, for the most part, she stays a puppet. (There’s one brief exception, which I dare not reveal.) And what a puppet she is! Having perhaps learned a lesson from Twilight, whose terrifying animatronic Renesmee was deemed too creepy to ever be used, Carax has no pretensions to realism. With visible hinges on her limb joints and a feltlike exterior, Annette resembles a cross between Pinocchio, Raggedy Anne, and a Rankin-Bass stop-motion character. And like Pinocchio, there are no strings on her. Carax revealed at the movie’s press conference on Wednesday that the puppet was operated sometimes by Driver or Cotillard and sometimes, for the more complicated scenes, by technicians hidden just off-screen. As a cinematic effect, it’s not not weird, but at least it detours around the Uncanny Valley by way of the Ravine of Surrealism.
Because she’s, you know, a puppet, the movie does not require the character of Annette to do much of the dramatic heavy lifting. (She’s most often paired up with Driver, who is acting enough for the both of them.) Which is not to say that she’s unemotional. When she’s frightened, her eyebrows lift in a perfect expression of dismay. Kids on the Disney Channel have to train for years to hit those beats, and she nails it.
Annette has other gifts, which I will not spoil for you, but I will say that they are such that she eventually goes on tour, where audiences around the globe react with near-religious fervor. By this point, Driver has metamorphosed into an evil stage dad complete with villainous trilby. (As we learned from Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, there is no Adam Driver as evil as Adam Driver In A Hat.) Her blankness makes sense: As Carax put it, to Driver’s, character she metaphorically is a puppet, someone to be controlled according to his desires. But, just to be clear, he added that, in the context of the movie, everyone else sees her as a healthy human child. He is a famous French director, so he did not mention “Calvin and Hobbes,” but if that reference helps you visualize it, then yes, it’s a bit like “Calvin and Hobbes.”
The last time Carax was at Cannes, he wound up winning the Palme d’Or for Holy Motors, a film that’s all about an analog world slowly fading in the digital age. I suspect the Annette puppet is his attempt at exploring similar themes, though we’ll have to wait a while to see whether it proves equally successful with audiences on the Croissette. If it is, the puppeteers won’t be the only ones giving Annette a hand.
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