Producers: Charles Gillibert, Paul-Dominique Vacharasinthu and Adam Driver   Director: Leos Carax   Screenplay: Ron Mael and Russell Mael   Cast: Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Davyn McDowell, Russell Mael and Ron Mael   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B-

As the recent disappointing showing of “In the Heights” demonstrated, there doesn’t seem to be much public appetite for movie musicals at the moment—even good-hearted, crowd-pleasing ones.  So one can only imagine what the response will be to this pop opera from Ron and Russell Mael, the cult duo known as Sparks (and the subject of Edgar Wright’s recent documentary), which, in the hands of equally cult director Leos Carax, is as artificial as Herbert Ross’ 1981 “Pennies from Heaven” was, and even bleaker.

“Annette” isn’t the surrealistic hodgepodge that Carax’s last film—2012’s “Holy Motors”—was, but in some respects it’s even stranger, because though cold and forbidding, it actually seems to want to elicit an emotional response from viewers.  Like Ross’ film (and Sparks’s decades-long output), it will likely be a succés d’estime that will perplex, and probably antagonize, ordinary folks.  And yet it’s perversely mesmerizing.

Like most operas, “Annette” has a quite simple plot-line.  After a cheeky opening—a long tracking shot, rivaling those in “Touch of Evil” or “The Bonfire of the Vanities”—in which much of the cast and some of the filmmakers (including the Maels and Carax) proceed from a recording studio to the street singing a song about starting the movie, the picture opens with the proclamation of a love affair between two very dissimilar celebrities, a literally pugnacious stand-up comic/performance artist named Henry McHenry (Adam Driver), nicknamed “The Ape of God,” and beautiful operatic diva Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard).  Though their performance styles are radically different, both are received with rapturous applause by their fans, and their coupling has become a prime topic in the press.

Despite their swooning expressions of undying love, however, there are already darkening clouds on the horizon.  Ann contemplates a half-dozen women charging Henry with abusive behavior, and when she gives birth to a child that they name Annette, the girl is played by a wooden puppet—or, more accurately, a succession of them—until, in the final sequence, she becomes a real girl (Davyn McDowell), presumably a reflection of how she appears in her father’s eyes, as a marionette to be manipulated rather than a human person.    

Despite the apparent ballast of parenthood, the relationship deteriorates.  Ann’s star continues to ascend, while Henry’s slides, his act growing increasingly surly and dyspeptic, its challenges to the audience now generating catcalls rather than laughs.  When the family takes a yacht out for a spin and they run into a violent storm, Henry’s actions lead to Ann falling overboard and drowning—perhaps an off-handed reference to Natalie Wood’s still-debated demise.  Henry and Annette survive, and while on shore awaiting rescue, the girl abruptly unleashes a melancholy wail to the moon that emulates her mother’s voice. 

Though Henry is questioned by the police about Ann’s death, there is no evidence of his guilt, and after his release he gives himself over to promoting Baby Annette as a wondrous vocal miracle. Enlisting Ann’s former accompanist (Simon Helberg), who long loved her, to conduct the backup orchestra, Henry turns his daughter into an international phenomenon attracting rabid crowds wherever she goes.  But when challenged about his motives, he explodes in an act of violence that ultimately results in an emotional showdown between father and, now, flesh-and-blood daughter.

The puppet business apart, this scenario might have served as the basis for a 1940s Hollywood melodrama, and the florid style wouldn’t have been out of place in that context either.  What’s certainly distinctive is the music, much of which has a throbbing repetitiveness in both rhythm and lyric that’s characteristic of Sparks but also includes some eerie solos (both for Ann and Annette); it’s doubtful that anyone will come out of theatre humming it, but the score actually resembles a good deal of modern tonal operatic writing.

And then there’s the artificiality, which is consistent throughout but wildly extravagant in some sequences.  A case in point is the storm sequence, with the waves projected against the rocking soundstage ship deck, and the following post-shipwreck image with a spotlight moon shimmering in the dark “sky” over a shoreline that’s a simple platform.  Ann’s operatic performances—death scenes a specialty—are also given a shimmering, hallucinatory quality, while the audience reaction shots during Henry’s harangues are staged like choral interventions.  A murder sequence is located in an ostentatiously unrealistic garden.   Even setting aside the conventions of the musical form, it would be difficult to identify a single moment in the film that has a genuinely natural feel.  It’s impossible not to admire the craftsmanship behind it all—Florian Sanson’s elegant production design and the striking costumes by Pascaline Chavanne and Ursula Paredes Choto, all luminously shot by cinematographer Caroline Champetier and edited with brio by Nelly Quettier.

But however impressive the technique (the puppetry, for example, is creepily effective), the music and the lead performances—especially from Driver, who brings to Henry not only animal magnetism but cunning, but a touch of envy and fear—the fact remains that in the end “Annette” is little more than a critique of celebrity culture and the ambition and greed behind it, with a moral about how personally destructive it can be.  That’s hardly a revelatory theme, and for all its relevance to the present media environment, it’s not made any more profound by a style that’s often not much removed from hysterical.

Nonetheless there’s a bizarre grandeur to “Annette” that makes one willing to forgive, if not overlook, its calculated eccentricity and undoubted overreach. As an experiment in artifice, “Annette” succeeds, and it might even be thought a piece of art; though as a human story it’s a chilly puzzlement, the visual glitz—and the music—are enough to recommend it.