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It's been a long, long time since I've seen a movie take as big a swing as Annette does. This new film from director Leos Carax (Holy Motors) does the cinematic equivalent of walking a tightrope blindfolded while juggling chainsaws. It's essentially a rock opera, with story and songs written by Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the band Sparks (and the subjects of Edgar Wright's recent documentary The Sparks Brothers). Sure, there have been other rock operas, but if you're familiar with the Maels and/or Carax, you already know this is one like no other. Consistently surprising from minute to minute, the movie casts an immediate spell with an introductory musical number that finds all the key players singing as they exit a music studio and walk around a Los Angeles block. Things just get more magical from there.

Story-wise, Annette is fairly basic. Stand-up comedian Henry (Adam Driver) enters into a passionate relationship with opera singer Ann (Marion Cottilard). They get married, then have a child, Annette, together. Their happiness ultimately succumbs to the pressures of the show business lifestyle. He gets involved in a scandal, her career rises while his falls, etc.

What makes the picture special is the offbeat way it tells that intentionally basic story. Here's an example: We know Henry and Ann love each other so much because they sing a duet whose lyrics are “We love each other so much” repeated over and over. (At one point, Henry even looks up from performing oral sex on Ann to croon his line.) Henry's stand-up routine isn't presented as a series of jokes, but rather as him explaining to a Greek chorus-like audience why he resents his own success. Ann's accompanist (a terrific Simon Helberg) performs a song about how he's Ann's accompanist but wants to be a conductor instead. And baby Annette? Well, she's played by an animatronic doll. As in, the movie doesn't even try to convince you that it's anything other than a doll.

These things may sound like gimmicks. They might make you think that no way exists to form an emotional connection to anything in Annette. But the beauty of the picture is that you do become emotionally invested. The style may be drenched in intentional artificiality, yet the performances are 100% sincere. Driver convincingly plays the troubled Henry, whose demons come to the surface most fully when he tries to exploit his daughter's singing ability for personal gain. The actor conveys a wide range of feelings, showing how the character's sense of personal fulfillment grows or wanes, depending upon what's going on in his world.

Cotillard does something similar, making Ann a woman whose enthusiasm for life and the arts drives her into a romance with this man she knows is on the edge. Her heart breaks when the love she has for him isn't enough to keep things good. The actress's role shifts a bit in the third act. I don't want to say how, but Cotillard makes the transition feel truthful, adding another layer of mystique to the movie in the process. We really feel for this woman throughout, thanks to the nuance she supplies.

Carax makes every single scene visually stunning, and the songs by Sparks set the mood perfectly. Nothing about Annette is conventional. It continually takes chances, approaching straightforward emotional content in an abstract way that causes you to pay more attention to the themes than you would in a traditionally-told story. From one sequence to the next, you don't know what you're going to see. That sort of invention is hypnotic.

At the center of everything is little Annette herself. As a sign of how great the film is, she earns your empathy despite being played by a doll. By the powerhouse climactic interaction between Henry and Annette, it becomes clear why she's played by a doll, and that revelation sheds a lot of light on the man her father is. Mixing imagination and substance in that manner makes Annette a towering achievement in filmmaking that every adventurous viewer should see and experience.

out of four

Annette is rated R for sexual content including some nudity, and for language. The running time is 2 hours and 19 minutes.