After this exhilarating introduction, sadly, “Annette” begins a meandering, often maddening journey that feels simultaneously obvious and gratuitously arcane. Driver plays Henry McHenry, a stand-up comedian who has built a megasuccessful brand through his seething contempt for his own audience: He prepares for his shows by shadowboxing like Jake LaMotta (or, more precisely, Robert De Niro playing Jake LaMotta), the only thing visible under his green bathrobe hood the burning ember of his ever-present cigarette.
Henry has fallen in love with Ann (Cotillard), a delicate opera singer who commands similarly devoted hordes with her ethereal arias and talent for dying onstage. Ann is also in love with Henry, a fact that — in case viewers missed it — is billboarded in the duet “We Love Each Other So Much.” From the promise of newfound passion and domestic contentment, “Annette” plunges its characters into a nightmare of mistrust and primal fear, a theme embodied by Henry’s growing discomfort with commitment and bursts of animalistic rage (his stage name is the Ape of Man). It’s certainly no accident that Carax gives Cotillard a pixie-cut wig reminiscent of Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” early in the film, at one point filming Driver approaching her with his arms outstretched like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The “here be monsters” feeling of unease that isn’t particularly quelled with the arrival of the couple’s daughter Annette, an eerie little creature who becomes an international sensation when she’s revealed to possess a singing voice as otherworldly as she is.
Otherworldly and, it should be said, self-consciously surreal: To play Annette, Carax hasn’t cast an actor or even an animatronic baby, but a puppet, whose seams and drawn-on features he makes no effort to hide. One of “Annette’s” myriad themes is the fine line between art and artifice, underlined by the repetitive and bluntly literalistic lyrics of Sparks’s songs. What might have evoked Brechtian elegance, however, soon becomes merely redundant and drearily unfunny. (One welcome exception to “Annette’s” air of studied lugubriousness is a delightful scene featuring Helberg, who plays Ann’s lovesick accompanist and, in the sequence in question, an eventual conductor in his own right.)
As he demonstrated in his delightfully bonkers 2012 film “Holy Motors,” Carax is a master of mise-en-scene: Few directors have his acute eye for staging beauty, horror, dreamy escapism and destabilizing strangeness, often all at once. There are plenty of those moments in “Annette,” which has been arrestingly designed and shot by Florian Sanson and Caroline Champetier, respectively. But they don’t add up to much in the course of a story that encompasses sex, death, fickle audiences, celebrity culture, #MeToo-era gender politics and artistic purity. What Carax and his Sparks collaborators consider deep begins to look awfully like self-indulgence that has disappeared up its own arcana.
The thinness of “Annette’s” narrative and the unpleasantness of its music are only underscored by the virtuosity of its central performances: Although Ann is a wispy, unsubstantial character, Cotillard plays her with galvanizing, solemn focus (her singing voice is lovely, but Catherine Trottmann has been enlisted to handle the film’s operatic arias). For his part, Driver dominates “Annette” with the same tightly coiled mix of charisma and simian menace with which Henry — whose ego comes with generous dollops of shame and self-loathing — rules his precarious roost. He handles complicated singing and choreography with impressive offhandedness; even during the film’s most exaggerated passages, his acting never feels forced or less than honest.
Driver’s achievement comes into full force in “Annette’s” sad and surprisingly affecting final scene, when Carax collapses categories in a reversal that’s both shocking and heartbreakingly sweet. “Annette’s” most infuriating mannerisms might not have been earned, but one thing remains clear: Adam Driver keeps it real, even in a movie dedicated to upending the very concept.
R. At area theaters; available Aug. 20 on Amazon. Contains sexuality, including some nudity, and strong language. 140 minutes.