An unusual, magical, opera-like musical of heavy, tragic proportions, this devastating movie will likely alienate those not familiar with acclaimed French director Leos Carax or the music of Sparks. And even viewers who do know Carax's five other features (which date back to 1984; he works quite slowly) may not be ready for Annette, his English-language debut. It shares an aspect of showmanship and facade with his last movie, the strange, beautiful Holy Motors, but it moves in its own direction, going big with its withering emotions. The songs by the cult band Sparks -- profiled in Edgar Wright's excellent documentary The Sparks Brothers -- are also atypical: They're somewhat graceless and repetitive and yet undeniably effective, both searing and naked. (The brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, appear in the opening number, as does director Carax.)
Carax's visual touches are often breathtaking, from the spare stages of Ann and Henry's respective shows to the tilting, storm-torn deck of the yacht to Annette herself, who's performed by a series of eerily beautiful marionettes. Ann is frequently seen with a half-eaten apple, perhaps some kind of symbol of Eden, and Henry sports a notable birthmark on his face. Cotillard, who won an Oscar for playing Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, sings beautifully, but Driver is required to do most of the movie's heavy lifting, and he gives a full-blooded, ferocious performance. Annette is, in the end, a little opaque and a little dispiriting, and it ultimately doesn't seem much deeper than a showbiz cautionary tale, but it has more than its share of entrancing cosmic beauties.