Note: This story contains spoilers for the film “Annette,” now streaming on Amazon.
And yet director Leos Carax did exactly that, using an actual puppet to play Driver and Cotillard’s child in the new film “Annette,” about the tumultuous relationship between stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Driver) and opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Cotillard). Annette is their daughter, whose birth thrusts their marriage into unfamiliar, sometimes unsettling territory. Henry goes from joining Ann in the duet “We Love Each Other So Much” — this is a rock opera co-written by Ron and Russell Mael of the band Sparks, by the way — to being a key suspect in an investigation into her sudden death.
While technically stunning, “Annette” can be a lot to digest. The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote in her review that it’s a film especially for those who prefer their entertainment to be “as weird and even off-putting as possible.” So it only makes sense that what comes to haunt Henry most is the ethereal voice emanating from his young daughter, known professionally as Baby Annette, a prodigy who inherited her late mother’s ability to woo crowds across the world by singing.
Annette is the fake baby to end all fake movie babies. She is cute but her eeriness is still off the charts, arguably beyond that of CGI Renesmee from the “Twilight” saga (first designed as a mechanical doll the production crew deemed “Chuckesmee"). Annette isn’t nearly as stiff as the plastic baby from “American Sniper,” but her movements — manipulated with threads — don’t fully mimic those of a regular human, either, which the other characters consider her to be. This is intentional. She is less of her own person than she is an embodiment of Henry’s emotional trauma, her obvious puppet appearance a reflection of the pretense Henry relies on in both his provocative stand-up sets and life overall.
Designers who worked on “Annette” told The Post the fiery-haired puppet wasn’t meant to look like the actors, but that her overall spirit was inspired by the photograph of a young girl Carax knew. Annette appears as nine different puppets from birth to 6 years old, with two to eight expressions per age. Aesthetic designer Estelle Charlier said in an email interview translated from French that “working out the right level of realism was the main challenge posed by Annette’s aesthetics construction.”
“Since she was intended to live among human actors, the puppet had to be able to blend in with them,” Charlier said. “Yet, too much realism might have given rise to that uneasy feeling described in theories of robotics as the ‘valley of the uncanny,’ when too perfect an imitation of the human ends up creating a somewhat repulsive reaction. Annette, on the other hand, had to be instantly endearing.”
Though the precious creature maintains a disturbing edge, she still operates as the heart of the story. Annette, whose name is essentially “little Ann,” is a constant reminder of the woman she never had the chance to know. The puppets were designed to move in a way that "had to inspire tenderness and empathy toward her,” technical designer Romuald Collinet told The Post in the email interview. Charlier described Carax’s early vision for Annette as “a special being with a particular charm.”
The puppet undeniably casts a spell. Soon after Ann’s death, Henry, a rather large man, sleeps beside Annette in her crib — a sight to behold, but one that somehow comes off as only a little ridiculous and largely poignant. Henry describes his daughter as a miracle, her otherworldly nature reinforced by images of her floating out of television screens, or flying across the sky. She descends upon stages via drone, as if she were a gift sent from the heavens above. Then she projects her angelic voice.
Perhaps Baby Annette is the perfect celebrity baby after all.